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Wireless USB poised to cut the cable

After years of discussion, fast wireless connections between PCs and peripherals are getting close.

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.