In the second quarter of next year, Compaq will release notebooks with a feature called Multiport, which lets people slide integrated wireless modems or other devices onto the back of the screen, the company told CNET News.com on Tuesday.
Approximately six inches long and less than an inch thick, the Multiport module slides into a groove in the exterior shell of the monitor. The antenna is incorporated into the unit so there is nothing that can break off.
Compaq won't be the first to market with a wireless notebook connector. Multiport is similar to IBM's Portofino, which lets people snap cameras, Bluetooth transmitters or other devices onto a port on top of a notebook screen.
Compaq, however, is shooting for functionality. Wireless is increasingly going to become standard on notebooks. But there are also going to be number of communications protocols, such as Bluetooth and 802.11B, that each require separate modems. By reducing the complexity through snap-on accessories, Compaq hopes to gain market share.
The challenges delivering wireless on portables are complex, particularly as two complementary technologies--Bluetooth and 802.11B wireless networking--compete for dominance. Because both technologies operate in the 2.4-GHz radio band, PC makers must also work around possible interference between Bluetooth and 802.11B
Notebooks geared for 802.11 will start to become more prevalent next year as the infrastructure to connect to the Web through the technology is installed.
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds predicts a surge "in notebooks equipped with 802.11B next year." He expects integrated wireless networking from all major notebook makers, "but Bluetooth may take another year to really get up to speed."
Bluetooth, a wireless technology for creating "personal area networks," is expected to be a boon for the handheld computer and cellular handset markets. Bluetooth-enabled notebooks could automatically communicate over the air with handhelds, cell phones or printers when brought within close proximity of them. That means, for example, connecting to the Internet over a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone without cables attached to the portable.
Wireless networking, by contrast, is more specific in function, allowing mobile workers to connect handhelds or portables to a corporate network or the Internet over the air, without the need for wires or cables.
The first Bluetooth PC Cards are just now hitting the market, while 802.11B wireless LAN options have been readily available for more than a year. But both wireless products fit into a notebook's PCMCIA slot where they can be more easily damaged than snap-on or integrated components.
Jeff Groudan, Compaq's director of portable product marketing, is pleased with the slide-on option.
"Aesthetically, this is a very pleasing solution. You don't have to use a PC Card slot," Groudan said. "We wanted the flexibility where you could work all day with an 802.11 modem and pop it off and put on a GPRS (General Packet Radio Switching) module."
No major notebook maker currently offers integrated Bluetooth, although when Multiport first debuts, Compaq will sell a snap-on Bluetooth module developed by Ericsson and an 802.11 connector developed by Intel, Groudan said.
GPRS connection modules will come later in the year along with cameras and other peripherals.
Bluetooth's appeal initially may be eclipsed by the wider adoption of wireless networking, even though the technologies complement each other rather than compete.
"A lot of hotel rooms and airlines are outfitting rooms with 802.11 as a pull," Groudan said. "802.11 is really compelling to small-business guys."
Cahners In-Stat Group forecasts the wireless networking market will grow to $2.2 billion in 2004 from $771 million last year. Windfall demand is expected among frequent travelers, as airports and hotels add 802.11B wireless base stations, enabling notebooks to connect to the Internet or back to corporate networks.
Wayport, for example, offers wireless networking in hotels and airports in 39 states.
Still, PC makers have been struggling to add wireless networking capabilities to notebooks. While Dell Computer ships two Latitude notebooks--the C600 and C800--with wireless antennas, Lucent Technologies has been unable to deliver the radio component necessary for the technology to work.
Hewlett-Packard also is uncertain about how to best support wireless networking. While the OmniBook 6000 and the new OmniBook 500 notebook unveiled at Comdex left space inside the unit for antennas, HP does not yet offer them.