Wireless USB gadgets trickle into marketplace

The first PCs and devices supporting a wireless version of the USB communication technology are starting to appear. Do they portend a flood? Photos: Wireless USB devices

Wireless USB, a cable-free version of the ubiquitous device connection technology, is finally becoming a product and not just a promise.

Last week, Belkin announced a Wireless USB hub, and Lenovo debuted its T61p notebook, which will support Wireless USB as an option. This week, a raft of other PC and peripheral makers are expected to announce their products.

And not a moment too soon: Wireless USB (Universal Serial Bus) is arriving about a year later than promised. And other wireless communication standards, Bluetooth and 802.11 Wi-Fi networking, are established already.

"It's time for Wireless USB to move from the PowerPoint slides to the real world," said iSuppli analyst Jagdish Rebello.

If it lives up to its backers' hopes, it will spread in coming years to printers, hard drives, set-top boxes, cameras, digital music players and mobile phones. Several products, including PCs and hubs, are now in testing to receive the "Certified Wireless USB" logo, said Jeff Ravencraft, president and chairman of the USB Implementers Forum.

Chicken and egg
Like wired USB was more than a decade ago, Wireless USB is a classic example of a "chicken-and-egg" technology problem, where two parts of the industry depend on each other to make products useful. In the case of Wireless USB, the parties involved are, on the one hand, computer makers who must build Wireless USB support into their PCs and, on the other, device makers whose products are at the other end of those connections.

Wireless hub products could help jump-start the industry by bridging from the existing wired USB world to a wireless future, and Belkin competitors likely will announce their own products as soon as this week. Such systems typically have two components: a "dongle" that plugs into a PC's wired USB port and gives the computer Wireless USB abilities, and a hub with four wired USB ports for connecting current devices.

The dongle can communicate with future Wireless USB-enabled products and, of course, with the hub. And next-generation PCs with Wireless USB built-in will be able to communicate with the hub and whatever wired USB devices are plugged into it. Wireless USB has a maximum range of about 30 feet but isn't designed to penetrate walls.

Strong backers of Wireless USB include companies such as Staccato Communications, WiQuest Communications and Alereon.

iSuppli expects the market for Wireless USB radio-communication chipsets to grow from $15 million in 2007 to $2.6 billion in 2011. That growth matches the expected spread of the technology, from 1 million Wireless USB-enabled devices this year to 500 million in 2011.

Much of Wireless USB will work like today's USB, only without the cables. But Mike Krell, Alereon's director of communications and business development, likes to paint pictures of new possibilities as well. For example, a digital camera user could store photos to a separate portable hard drive with much more capacity than a flash memory card, or download them to a photo-printing kiosk without worrying about having the right cable or memory card support. The user could also display the pictures on a big-screen TV on the other side of a room.

"I want to put my camera on the coffee table and look at them on a 60-inch screen," Krell said, and not be tethered by a short cable.

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