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USB heading to gadgets

A number of companies are working toward a new USB technology that will connect the world of gadgets without the need for a PC to act as middleman.

A number of companies are working toward a new USB technology that will connect the world of gadgets without the need for a PC to act as middleman.

The universal serial bus, originally viewed as a PC-centric technology, is following the trend of small devices taking center stage among consumers.

USB can be found in the vast majority of new desktops and notebooks, allowing them to act as hubs for connecting devices, such as a digital camera to a printer. Right now, such devices cannot communicate directly with one another.

The new specification, USB On-the-Go, will essentially eliminate the role of the PC as a go-between.

"What we have right now is a situation where the PC is always the host and other devices that connect to it are slaves. With USB On-the-Go...devices will be able to be hosts or slaves, and they'll negotiate with one another to determine the host depending on the situation," said David Murray, a member of an industry group's subcommittee on USB On-the-Go. He is also vice president at Irvine, Calif.-based TransDimension, which manufactures USB chipsets.

Analysts expect that the new technology to become widely accepted by manufacturers of gadgets such as digital cameras, cell phones and handhelds. Gadgets remain one of the few tech categories that are still selling well despite the downturn in the PC market.

"I've been pushing for this capability since USB was introduced," said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "I'm assuming that every device manufacturer will incorporate this specification because it just makes sense. It gives added flexibility and is relatively inexpensive."

The original USB standard for PCs was released in 1996 but took another two years to gain widespread acceptance, Murray said.

The new specification has yet to be approved by the USB Implementers Forum, an industry group founded by companies that developed the USB specification.

The forum's board of directors includes representatives from Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, NEC and Philips Electronics. The new specification is in the hands of the forum's USB On-the-Go subgroup.

USB On-the-Go is at the 0.8 level, which means that it is still private but ready to be brought before the USB forum's board, Murray said. If the board approves USB On-the-Go, it will reach level 0.9 and become publicly available.

Murray expects that USB On-the-Go will be approved this summer, with chips available by the third quarter and products incorporating the new standard by the fourth quarter.

Glaskowsky said he expects to see USB On-the-Go in devices within the next year. Other analysts have said that it will take at least another two years to become widely available.

There has been some speculation that USB On-the-Go will be pitted against other technologies that allow devices to communicate directly, such as Bluetooth or IEEE 1394. But Glaskowsky and Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds disagree with this scenario, saying that there is room in the market for all three and that they are complementary rather than competitive.

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows devices, such as handhelds and notebooks, within 30 feet of one another to share information at speeds of 720kbps. Bluetooth products are starting to trickle into the market. Several notebook makers, including Compaq and IBM, have Bluetooth-enabled PC Cards available as options.

IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, enables high-speed data transfer--up to 400mbps--between devices. FireWire is not a wireless technology and is meant for connecting video-related devices, such as camcorders and cameras. FireWire ports can be found in PCs, but the technology is not as widely distributed as USB, which can be found in nearly every computer sold.

"Each of these technologies has a place and offers distinct capabilities," said Reynolds, a Gartner vice president. "FireWire can be viewed as a higher-speed and higher-cost technology mainly for video purposes, whereas On-the-Go is much more affordable and common. And while Bluetooth is wireless, USB is still about 10 times faster. I think they can all fit together."