USB On-the-Go gets going

The new technology could make handheld devices more useful by allowing them to share files directly, without the need for a PC.

A new technology that allows handheld devices to share files directly, without the need for a PC, could be on store shelves by the end of the year.
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Several manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, are evaluating ways to use an offshoot of the Universal Serial Bus 2.0 specification called USB On-the-Go. Using it, a person could plug a handheld or digital camera straight into a printer to produce a photo. PDAs also could swap documents directly or back up data by connecting directly to a portable hard drive. The technology is also expected to be used in cell phones and MP3 players.

"There are lots of applications where you need limited host capability. You don't want to carry your PC with you everywhere," said Rajeev Mehtani, product line manager for wired connectivity at Philips Semiconductor.

Currently, most handhelds and other gadgets use standard USB, which means that in order to download files, PDAs, cameras or portable drives have to be plugged into a PC. Only then are users able to move data to another device, uploading it from the PC.

Philips and TransDimension are two of the manufacturers that sell the chips necessary to build USB On-the-Go into a device. Executives at Philips said PDAs could have USB On-the-Go inside by the end of this year.

"The first products which we know are planned to be launched--at the end of the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter of this year--are PDAs," Mehtani said. "The targeted application is printing. The second we know of are cameras and cell phones."

Executives at HP said the company's Digital Imaging Organization, a division of its Imaging and Printing Group, is looking at USB On-the-Go as a way of letting its digital cameras and photo printers exchange files.

"In some cases, users want to do something quickly. We need something that's low cost and convenient for device-to-device communication," said Catherine Huneke, an HP product manager.

HP's DeskJet 995c printer uses Bluetooth, a short-range wireless networking specification. It allows people with Bluetooth in their PDAs to wirelessly print documents on the 995c. But "don't underestimate the straight forwardness of a cable," Huneke said. "It's really much more appropriate for the mass market."

The debut of USB On-the-Go helps USB 2.0 draw closer in functionality to rival IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire. The 1394 specification, which is used widely in consumer-electronics devices such as digital videos, also has so-called host capabilities. Analysts say it would cost about the same to implement 1394 and USB On-the-Go in devices.

Borrowing from the past
Analysts believe that although it's a relative newcomer, USB On-the-Go has a chance to succeed where other technologies, even wireless technologies such as infrared, have not.

"The fact that it isn't wireless--although you could argue it's more intuitive than wireless--is a little bit inconvenient," said Brian O'Rourke, senior analyst with InStat/MDR. Still, having its heritage in USB could help.

"I'm hesitant to endorse the idea that USB On-the-Go is a world beater," O'Rourke said. "But then again, it's part of USB, which has been a world beater." O'Rourke said USB On-the-Go chips have already exceeded his shipment forecast.

Bluetooth could give USB On-The-Go a run for its money. But manufacturers say the USB On-the-Go is faster and less expensive, costing less than $5 per device to add. Philips sells a standalone chip that adds USB On-The-Go to a device for about $3. "It's a good value-add for convenience and functionality," Philips' Mehtani said.

Should the new technology catch on, manufacturers could cut even more of the cost of adding USB On-The-Go by incorporating the technology into the system chip or chips that run their devices, Mehtani said.

But even as USB On-The-Go nears introduction in devices, manufacturers are still working out some issues behind the scenes.

Drivers--software programs that are used to enable hardware devices to interact--still need to be written in order to let various kinds of PDAs, cameras, MP3 players and other gadgets communicate with each another. It's a process that requires time and cooperation between many companies.

And once this software is in place, the devices need to be tested with one another to ensure interoperability.

Both tasks are ongoing, using the USB Implementer's Forum, the organization that creates USB standards, as a conduit to test drivers and devices for interoperability.