The end of the PRISM era: Conexant stops wireless LAN chip development

Once upon a time, a company called Harris produced a chipset called the PRISM. It was the chipset to use for building early 802.11 devices. Way back in 2000, I remember building the linux-wlan project driver on an ancient Pentium laptop to get the 802.11 card working. Back in those days, 802.11 was a Mbps standard, with the glimmer of an 11 Mbps “high speed” 802.11b in the distance.

(Interesting fact: “PRISM” was an acronym for the chip, which stood for “Programmable Radio in the ISM band.” ISM refers to the widely-used slice of spectrum around 2.4 GHz that all these devices use.)

Harris spun of the chip business as Intersil in February 2000, raising $500 million in what was at the time, the largest semiconductor IPO in history. Intersil chips were the chip to use. The venerable PRISM was succeeded by the PRISM-II, which added support for 802.11b. Intersil was flying high. As an example, in 2001, an analyst for wrote that you should ignore all of the brands you saw on 802.11 equipment (notably Apple, which had gained notice with the success of the AirPort access points). To bet on the future success of 802.11, he advised, buy Intersil stock:

Intersil is the enabler of the 802.11b revolution. Intersil’s Prism chipsets power more 802.11b networks than anyone else, and its technology is right out there on the bleeding edge. It is profitable, and Intersil is divesting itself of its slow-growth businesses, making it a pure play and developing a strong balance sheet at the same time.

In July 2003, Intersil sold its wireless LAN business to GlobespanVirata for about $350 million. A few months later in November 2003, Conexant systems then acquired the wireless LAN chip business through a $970 million acquisition of GlobespanVirata.

Last week, Conexant’s fourth quarter financial results press release announced the end of the line for the Prism:

Effective immediately, Conexant is discontinuing further investment in standalone wireless networking product development and will eliminate approximately 140 positions worldwide. Beginning in the second quarter of fiscal 2008, the company expects these actions to save approximately $5 million in quarterly operating expenses. The company plans to maintain the staffing levels required to support existing wireless networking customers with current solutions. Conexant’s remaining wireless employees will join the company’s Broadband Access organization and support DSL gateways that incorporate wireless connectivity.

The Prism chips have long been supplanted by newer vendors like Atheros, Intel, and Broadcom, but I still feel a little bit misty-eyed at the end of the era. It was an early Prism radio that inspired me to get involved in 802.11, and their early support of open source drivers like linux-wlan made them the nexus of experimentation on Linux until other vendors decided to get with the program.

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