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Compaq offers wireless modules for notebooks

The company unveils the first modules for adding wireless capabilities to Armada commercial notebooks.

Compaq Computer on Tuesday unveiled the first modules for adding wireless capabilities to Armada commercial notebooks.

As first reported by CNET, Compaq plans in the first quarter to introduce notebooks with a feature called MultiPort. The port will be situated on the exterior of the case to accommodate plug-in modules approximately six inches long and less than an inch thick.

The first MultiPort modules, with technology from Intel and Ericsson, will add two hot wireless technologies--802.11B wireless networking and Bluetooth--to Armada portables.

Intel designed the 802.11B wireless LAN (local area network) module, which allows companies to network notebooks at speeds up to 11 megabytes per second without the need for wires or cables. Employees could go from cubicle to conference room without losing their connection to the corporate network or the Internet.

Compaq designed the Bluetooth component based on Ericsson's Bluetooth module. Bluetooth differs dramatically from 802.11B in that it creates personal area networks. Bluetooth-equipped devices brought in close contact automatically connect to each other.

But which wireless technologies ultimately will dominate is uncertain. While Bluetooth is highly touted, 802.11B has an early lead.

Researcher Cahners In-Stat Group, for example, forecasts the wireless networking market will grow to $2.2 billion in 2004 from $771 million last year. Heavy 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.

Rather than taking a fully integrated approach, as Dell Computer has done with wireless networking, Compaq is hedging its bets.

"This is really about investment protection," said Compaq spokesman Mike Hockey. "No one knows what wireless technologies will dominate 18 months from now."

The approach lets Compaq offer a fairly integrated wireless product--the antenna is incorporated into the unit, so nothing can break off--but with interchangeable radio components supporting different technologies.

IBM has taken a similar approach with Portofino ports available on the lid of ThinkPad notebooks.

"This is a good place to put a radio device," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, referring to Portofino.

Compaq hopes the MultiPort design will solve some of the radio frequency issues facing notebook makers, particularly potential conflict between 802.11B and Bluetooth, which both operate in the 2.4-GHz range.

MultiPort also frees up badly needed PCMCIA and Mini-PCI slots, the typical choice for plugging in wireless LAN and Bluetooth cards. Companies offering integrated antennas, such as Dell and IBM, put the radio device in the Mini-PCI slot. More typically, the radio devices go in the PCMCIA slot.

PC makers most often use those slots for modems and network cards, "which are more desired and established by many customers than wireless," said ARS analyst Matt Sargent.

Because MultiPort uses USB technology, the port can use any USB-equipped device that fits, Hockey said.

"You could certainly attach a USB camera, even a scanner, if you could fit it in that form factor," he said.