Windows XP working its connections

Microsoft next year plans to update Windows XP to support two technologies left out of the new operating system: USB 2.0 and Bluetooth. But customers may not have to wait.

5 min read
Microsoft next year plans to update Windows XP to support two technologies left out of the new operating system: USB 2.0 and Bluetooth.

Both technologies are used for connecting peripherals to PCs, USB 2.0 at speeds up to 480 megabits per second (mbps) and Bluetooth over the air without wires. USB 2.0 support is expected early next year, and the Bluetooth addition should come by mid-2002.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft passed on including the two technologies in the first shipping version of Windows XP in favor of two others: IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, a standard championed by Apple Computer, and 802.11b, which is used for wireless networking.

Consumers craving USB 2.0 might not have to wait until the update is issued. Microsoft has released the "stack" for the connectivity standard to PC makers, which can immediately include it on new Windows XP-based PCs.

Gateway, for example, plans to begin shipping Windows XP PCs equipped with USB 2.0 the first week of January, a spokeswoman said.

"If they've got the devices and want to use our (USB 2.0) stack, they can start to do that in their computers," said Tom Laemell, Windows XP product manager.

"By early next year, that should be available by Windows Update to end users," he continued. "We need a little bit more time to package it up for Windows Update, to make sure it's run through all the possible test scenarios--on all possible Windows XP machines out there." Windows Update is Microsoft's online method for updating Windows.

Microsoft's decision to favor FireWire over USB 2.0 at the time made sense because more devices were available for the Apple-backed connectivity standard, said Technology Business Research analyst Brooks Gray.

Cahners In-Stat Group estimates that manufacturers shipped 35 million FireWire-equipped PCs and consumer-electronics devices last year, with the number expected to swell to 200 million by 2005. While digital camcorders greatly contributed to the surge of FireWire shipments, In-Stat concluded that the convergence of FireWire with 802.11a wireless could be instrumental in driving demand.

With Windows XP's increased emphasis on digital media, such as home moviemaking, Microsoft opted for FireWire, with plans of adding USB 2.0 later.

"We've said for a long time that we are and will be supporting USB 2.0," Laemell said.

Still, Windows XP started selling months after the first USB 2.0 peripherals appeared in stores. Instead of being able to ship PCs with the connectivity standard, manufacturers had to rely on add-in cards.

"I think now that because of customer demand, there is a requirement for both FireWire and USB 2.0 capabilities," Gray said.

Unlike FireWire, USB is ubiquitous, shipping on about 99 percent of PCs. In-Stat projects that about 750 million notebooks and PCs with USB will be in use by 2004.

But the majority of units will use the older USB 1.1, which has a maximum throughput of 12mbps compared with USB 2.0's 480mbps.

Though Gateway plans to offer USB 2.0 next month, many other PC makers are waiting for chipsets supporting the connectivity standard to appear on computer motherboards. Compaq Computer, for example, will offer USB 2.0 on notebooks in the spring.

Bluetooth bites 802.11b
Both 802.11b and Bluetooth are wireless technologies, with the former being used to network PCs or portables together without the need for wires, and Bluetooth allowing disparate devices, such as cell phones, PDAs or printers, to share data or information when placed within about 30 feet of each other.

Analysts had predicted that 2001 would be the year of Bluetooth, but problems getting the technology to market and the unexpected demand for 802.11b stalled adoption.

Apple Computer, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Gateway, IBM and Toshiba all sell notebooks with integrated 802.11b wireless. MicronPC joined the fray on Monday, shipping the wireless technology on Transport GX2 and XT2 notebooks.

Gateway is so hot on 802.11b that the company is setting up special displays in some of its nearly 300 Country stores with mock living rooms where salespeople demonstrate the benefits of wireless networking.

"I know my family is somewhat addicted to the technology, where they can sit on the couch in front of the TV and still do AOL and instant messaging," said Randy Farwell, Gateway's director of product marketing. "We put together a lot of packages where we even come in and do the installation for you."

Gateway has put together a number of special bundles for the holidays that include wireless notebooks and access points.

Despite 802.11b's popularity, Bluetooth is finally beginning to take off and is expected to eclipse 802.11b next year.

In-Stat estimates that manufacturers will ship 13 million Bluetooth chipsets this year, or about double those for 802.11b. That number is expected to swell to 780 million units by 2005. By contrast, the research firm predicted wireless networking unit shipments would grow from 3.3 million last year to 23.6 million by 2005.

On Tuesday, Microsoft laid out its Bluetooth plan during a developers conference in San Francisco.

"It's a technology that's coming of age," Laemell said. "By summer of 2002, we will make available a Bluetooth stack for Windows XP.

In the meantime, Microsoft has commenced Bluetooth testing using radios supplied by Silicon Wave and Cambridge Silicon Radio.

Update me, please
Like USB 2.0, Microsoft will deliver Bluetooth capability using XP's Windows Update feature.

Microsoft revamped the feature in Windows XP, offering people for the first time the ability to update automatically. The change is part of Microsoft's effort to enhance the operating system more frequently. For example, on the day Windows XP launched, Microsoft had up to 20MB of updates ready for download.

This week, the company delivered more than 40 software compatibility fixes. The 1.5MB can be downloaded using Windows Update.

The update package addresses problems with Macromedia's Dreamweaver 4, LapLink Professional 2 and Microsoft Money 2000, among others, Microsoft said.

"That's a continuing process," Laemell said of Windows Update. "It's our second large update package. This rolls up over 40 application compatibility fixes."

But, he cautioned, "It's not a guarantee all of these will work flawlessly."