Perlman's wireless revolution

Ashlee Vance/BusinessWeek
29 Jul 2011

It’s a bright, mild July afternoon, and khaki’d professionals meander past the boutiques and coffee shops, heading back to their digital workstations. One of the slower pedestrians, who gets more than a few curious glances from passersby, is a middle-aged guy in jeans and a green T-shirt, carefully rolling a utility cart down the sidewalk. The cart is one of those black, plastic, double-decker jobs you find at a home-improvement store. It’s laden with electronics and has white vinyl plumbing pipes that stick into the air from two corners.

“It’s a very small group of people that actually turn the wheels around Silicon Valley,” says Stephen Perlman, the Silicon Valley inventor and entrepreneur who once sold a company to Microsoft for half a billion dollars, as he hunches over to keep the gear from jostling.

“What’s that?” asks an onlooker, a scruffy guy with gray hair and a beard to match. He looks like he’s been to a few too many Grateful Dead concerts.

Perlman patiently explains that he’s developing a new type of wireless technology that’s about 1,000 times faster than the current cell networks. It will, he says, end dropped calls and network congestion, and pump high-definition movies to any computing device anywhere.

“Huh. Cool,” says the guy, evidently deciding that Perlman is some sort of technological busker. He dumps a handful of acorns on Perlman’s cart and walks away. Perlman shrugs: “You get all kinds here.”

Now that he’s stopped in front of the Private Bank of the Peninsula, the demonstration is about to begin. It’s the first he’s ever given of his latest technology on the record. He points to the laptop on his cart. There’s a square with purple dots dancing around like television static. Perlman calls his office and tells an engineer to activate some software. Suddenly, the dots form a tight ball in the center of the screen. Perlman explains that the antennas, fastened to the ends of the plumbing pipes, have just picked up a radio signal sent from his office across the street. “It’s almost like magic,” he says.

A radio signal from point A to point B is hardly magic, but it isn’t just any signal his utility-cart contraption has picked up. This one reached B without encountering any hiccups or degradation of the sort familiar to anyone who tries to make a mobile call or watch a streaming video on a smartphone. The tight ball of dots represents what Perlman calls “the area of coherence,” and it means the device has found a pure signal.

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