October 17, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Wireless USB poised to cut the cable

The computer industry is still working on the paperless office, but new short-range wireless technologies on tap for next year could at last bring about the cable-free desktop.

The PC and consumer electronics industries have been talking up Certified Wireless USB (Universal Serial Bus) links as a replacement for those tried-and-true USB cables connecting the PC to everything from iPods to keyboards. Delays, unfortunately, have plagued more than a few companies trying to make this a reality.

But by the end of this year, the products that rid your desktop of that tangle of wires should finally start hitting the market.

It's happening now for a combination of reasons. The WiMedia Alliance is planning to make the technology known as "ultrawideband," or UWB, work among a wide variety of consumer electronics devices, from PCs and printers to external hard drives and MP3 players. The USB Implementers Forum, the 1394 Trade Association and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) have chosen the WiMedia Alliance's version of UWB technology as the foundation for their next-generation networking technology.

UWB technology can deliver data rates at up to 480 megabits per second at around 3 meters, with speeds dropping off as the range grows to a limit of about 10 meters. Real-world speeds will probably be a little slower, but this is as fast as the wired version of USB 2.0 and much faster than current Wi-Fi networks are capable of transmitting data.

"This stuff is plumbing," Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said of the newer-generation wireless technology. "It's important that it be there, it's going to be handy for getting rid of cables hanging around your desk."

However, like many future technologies, high-bandwidth short-range wireless has been a long time in the making. Progress has been delayed in part by a pitched battle between the WiMedia Alliance, led by Intel, and the UWB Forum, led by Freescale, to determine the industry-standard implementation for UWB technology. The WiMedia backers, which also include Sony, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung, are pushing forward with chips and devices under the Certified Wireless USB brand.

Hints of the future
Freescale and Belkin attracted attention at the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show with the introduction of Belkin's CableFree USB Hub. But in April, Freescale left the UWB Forum to focus on developing its own cable-free USB products, killing much of the momentum behind the UWB Forum. Belkin was forced to change suppliers; as a result, the CableFree USB Hub has yet to make it onto store shelves.

The WiMedia Alliance also took longer than expected to deliver so-called Certified Wireless USB products--in part because it needed to improve how the technology dealt with shifting between environments, such as walking into an office full of wireless networks, said the WiMedia Alliance's Mark Fidler, also a senior engineer at Hewlett-Packard. But with those hurdles cleared, products are starting to appear that hint at the future of short-range networking.

At last month's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, Intel, Kodak and UWB chipmaker Alereon demonstrated how the Certified Wireless USB version of the technology would work.

Pictures taken on a digital camera could be immediately downloaded to a PC with the push of a button. The first time the devices notice each other, the PC would ask the user if it should connect to that particular camera, hard drive or smart phone. With the PC user's authorization, the latest vacation photos start flowing on the desktop and the devices can be set to automatically recognize each other in the future. It's not hard to imagine these capabilities extending to other devices, such as high-definition televisions, said Eric Broockman, CEO of Alereon.

MP3 players are another potentially big market for this technology, Broockman said. Microsoft's Zune player is going to ship with a 802.11g Wi-Fi chip later this year, allowing two Zune users to share songs. But Certified Wireless USB is much faster and uses less power than Wi-Fi, he said.

Early Certified Wireless USB setups are still going to involve a lot of cables, since the only way consumers will be able to wirelessly connect devices is with dongles. At an Intel Developer Forum in Taiwan on Monday, a contract manufacturer called Gemtech introduced a Certified Wireless USB dongle using chips from Intel and Alereon. In this scenario, a Wireless USB connection could be established by plugging a Gemtech dongle into a printer, and one into a PC, and then associating the two dongles.

This isn't the most elegant setup, however. By next year, Alereon hopes companies will start incorporating its chips into expansion cards that can plug into an ExpressCard slot similar to how many notebook users were introduced to Wi-Fi, Broockman said. Further down the road, Alereon and Intel say they believe PC companies will start incorporating the chips directly onto their motherboards.

One potential hurdle is making sure the technology is easy to use, Fidler said. Early implementations of Bluetooth were notoriously difficult for people who weren't tech-savvy, although things have improved quite a bit. USB cables, however, couldn't be much easier to use.

"The goal is to get (wireless USB technology) easy to use but at the same time we need to maintain security," he said. This will require additional authentication steps to ensure that only authorized devices can associate with a host device.

See more CNET content tagged:
UWB, wireless technology, wireless USB, Belkin Corp., consumer electronics

13 comments

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wire free? HA
Since we're all pretty terrified to use our batteries now, what about the power cords?? :)
Posted by menty666 (53 comments )
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Bluetooth...?
So how is this significantly different from Bluetooth, albeit maybe a bit faster?
Posted by DraconumPB (229 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not Bluetooth
Bluetooth was not designed to be on the bus. Sure most of the needs for a wireless USB could be met with Bluetooth, but it has to do with where these devices are connecting. Start thinking wireless mice, keyboards and bootable hard drives. You are not just connecting two devices, you are allowing that external device to get on the system bus.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
Link Flag
Yet Another pain in A$$
Pain for consumer to dabble with another standard.. and another reason for hardware makers to push next gen electronics..with $100 markup

All we (consumer) need some wireless technology with-in 10-50 meters range and existing WiFi can do that, if hardware makers allow to do it.

First they hyped abt bluetooth, then they hyped abt Wifi..thne USB, now wireless USB.

90% of us, we just want to connect keyboard/mouse/printers/PDA/ipods to sync using wireless.. and they still evoloving wireless.

NewsFlash: in yr 2009, they will come ultra-ultra-fast band.. so again upgrade your devices..
Posted by ajainy (2 comments )
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Correction...
First came firewire (IEE 1394) then USB. USB was slower, but allowed for powering up devices so you had only 1 cable and could connect devices like a mouse easily. Following those cable based standards was wireless ethernet 802.11b, followed by bluetooth, USB 2.0 hits around that time, then 802.11g, finally 802.11n. Now where to go from there...

Yes, lots of changes and each one hyped by whoever created it. In particular I love how the new "N" version of the wireless ethernet is touted as increasing your download speeds when the first version of wireless ethernet used up all of most home broadband connections bandwidth. A bigger pipe inside the home is not going to increase it's pipe going out to the Internet.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
Link Flag
I'm still waiting for hassle free Wi-Fi and they are adding new tech
Try to get Wi-Fi to logon to a domain the first time all the time.

The new Wirless N wasn't what it promised to be. I'll wait about 5 yrs and try again.

By the way I'm a PC Tech.
Posted by slim-1 (229 comments )
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Great. Something else that's not going to work right.
Can't wait.
Posted by ordaj (338 comments )
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Sounds good to me
Anything to cut down on the number of wires running under my desk is good in my book.
Posted by (402 comments )
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What about POWER?
Since I have a few USB devices that are powered via USB how might these devices work? How will I charge my iPod? Seems like I'm going to have some cords around after all. I don't think UWB will be charging my wireless mouse / keyboard, although that would be pretty freaking sweet... seems like there will be a few cables hanging around after all.
Posted by SeizeCTRL (1333 comments )
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Power
wireless-power will be the next big thing
Posted by bell1602 (1 comment )
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Wonderful
With the way offices are today, you and at least 3 of your co-workers can download your pictures at the same time.
Posted by willdryden (271 comments )
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Secure Enviornment
For classified and secure computing, wires are here to stay!
Posted by bkedersha (66 comments )
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