By Ben Charny
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
February 6, 2003, 4:00 AM PT
This time last year, wireless networking was primarily just for laptops. By the end of 2003, about 15 other types of electronic gear will be capable of using the burgeoning technology.
Companies like Texas Instruments began the wireless migration to devices other than laptops by shrinking the necessary silicon small enough for even a cell phone's snug confines. That paved the way for printers, personal digital assistants and even the office staple white board to abandon cables in favor of the Wi-Fi standard.
Soon, television set-top boxes, MP3 players, camcorders and even digital cameras will shed their wires as well, and the list will only grow as manufacturers try to cash in on Wi-Fi's increasing popularity.
The wireless trend is accelerating so fast that some in the industry have been concerned that there aren't enough frequencies to accommodate the market. Tens of millions more devices ranging from TiVo's television boxes to Nokia's Wi-Fi cell phones will vie for limited airwaves.
"The industry could run out of spectrum," Cahners In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee said. The Federal Communications Commission is quietly considering use of the television broadcast spectrum by other wireless devices.
Some TV manufacturers are already in the wireless game themselves, trying to take advantage of newer and faster Wi-Fi networks. Toshiba plans to make wireless networking chips for televisions, stereos and DVDs, as well as for laptops and modems.
The chips are based on the wireless standard known as 802.11a, which creates a signal powerful enough to send cable or digital music signals from room to room, said Andrew Burt, Toshiba's wireless marketing director. The technology is five times faster than older generations of wireless networks based on the 802.11b standard.
"The high-speed data connection is definitely a requirement," Burt said.
New devices mean new companies entering the market, and some big ones at that. Both Microsoft, which is selling wireless networking equipment, and Motorola are interested in pushing Wi-Fi into new devices, said Ross Seymore of investment firm Deutsche Bank Securities.
"The addition of players of this caliber bodes well for continued growth in this market, which we expect to grow from 24 million units in 2002 to 40 million in 2003," Seymore wrote to clients.
As it expands into other devices, Wi-Fi will finally get a chance to show off its fastest networking speeds, which could win any download showdown with a wired connection. But it's rare to find any wireless network using the peak speed of 11 megabits per second; most of the 35 million such networks now in homes and offices use a maximum 1mbps Web connection.
"When the new generations of wireless networks that move at 54mbps come in, you'll be able to download a thousand MP3 files quicker than you would with a wire," said Ron Paciello, a representative for Intersil, one of the major Wi-Fi chipmakers.
At that point, proponents of the technology believe, there will be no stopping the momentum that has helped Wi-Fi beat out other networking standards, including Bluetooth, which is just as fast as its rival but works effectively only in distances of inches. Wi-Fi's networks can connect devices up to 300 feet apart.
From laptops to camcorders The personal digital assistant was Wi-Fi's first frontier beyond laptops.
Most PDA makers have made it possible to connect a handheld wirelessly by creating a slot to house the graham-cracker-size Wi-Fi modem. PDAs from Toshiba and Intermec have embedded Wi-Fi technologies.
Personal computer owners are beginning to unwire their desktops using relatively primitive external modems. It won't be long before these devices are manufactured with Wi-Fi capabilities that are more efficient and powerful.
Cell phone maker Nokia added Wi-Fi into their devices to solve a digital dilemma. Downloading anything of any size to a cell phone is no easy feat for cell phone networks, which at their fastest can handle files at speeds of 144 kilobits per second. That's where Wi-Fi can be brought in for the "heavy lifting," Cahners In-Stat's Nogee said.
For instance, a cell phone could use Wi-Fi to download a huge document to a PC, which has far more computing power than a cell phone. "There is some very real potential to offloading some of the voice calls onto Wi-Fi," said Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with IDC.
The camera is also going wireless. Wi-Fi technologies will be embedded in camcorders from Hitachi and a digital camera from IqinVision that are making their way to the market.
But Jupiter analyst Dylan Brooks doesn't think major camera manufacturers will jump headlong into the technology until the next generation of faster wireless networks become more widespread and drop in price. "Right now, you get much better performance, in general, hooking up cords for that camera," Brooks said.
Television manufacturers are going slowly as well, though Sharp's
"If you download a movie on your computer, do you want to watch it on your computer? Not if you have a TV," Paciello said. "You can use Wi-Fi to download it."
ViewSonic have used 802.11 standards to unwire "smart" displays, such as a portable screen for reading Internet material on the go.
Even without such new uses, the wireless trend will continue to steam ahead with technologies that are already on the market. Wi-Fi equipment makers D-Link and Linskys, for instance, will sell ways to unwire game players such as the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2.
"We're not going to slow down," Paciello said. "We have to take advantage of this momentum."
The days of developing Wi-Fi products that work with only one standard may be coming to an end.
Now that there are two competing standards to choose from--802.11b and 802.11a--manufacturers are seeing double and creating gear that's compatible with both.
And as equipment based on a new third standard, 802.11g, becomes more popular, products will come in various combinations: 802.11a/802.11b, 802.11a/802.11g, 802.11b/802.11g and 802.11b/802.11a/802.11g.
"In short, there is little need for single-band products," said Will Strauss of consulting firm Forward Concepts.
Here are some of the dual-band products already on the market:
Dual-Band Wireless A+B Broadband Router from Linksys. Contains two access points, which let wireless-networked PCs use either the 802.11b or 802.11a standards.
Airplus Xtreme G DI-624 wireless router from D-Link. Another router allowing the creation of a wireless network that can be accessed by both 802.11g and 802.11b modems.
Satellite Pro 6100 series of notebooks from Toshiba's Computer Systems Group (CSG). Among the first notebooks with dual-band 802.11a/b wireless networking built-in.
Thinkpad R40 notebooks from IBM. Features dual-band Wi-Fi access for 802.11a and 802.11b networks.
AirPort Extreme technology from Apple Computer. Consists of two components: the AirPort Extreme Card and the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Supports 802.11g and 802.11b modems. Featured in powerbooks, such as the PowerBook G4.
Airstation G54 Broadband Router from Buffalo Technologies. Can be accessed by laptops using either 802.11g or 802.11b modems.
Aironet 1200 access points from Cisco Systems. Incorporates 802.11a and 802.11b networks. The company plans to incorporate 802.11g networks later this year.
Additional dual-mode products are expected from Texas Instruments, Broadcom and most other major Wi-Fi equipment makers.
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