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Chipmaker packs Wi-Fi into handhelds

Currently only a few handhelds come with built-in wireless capabilities, and they're too pricey for most buyers. But Intersil wants wireless access to be an option for everyone.

Intersil is working to add wireless networking to handheld devices.

The wireless equipment maker announced on Tuesday that it is working with SyChip to incorporate 802.11b wireless networking technology into a Secure Digital (SD) card for handheld devices.

The card, which should be available to manufacturers for testing in the fourth quarter, lets handheld owners add and remove wireless networking capabilities to handhelds from Palm, Hewlett-Packard and other companies that contain a slot for SD cards.

Wireless cards for the SD slot essentially would make it far easier for handheld manufacturers and owners to get these devices linked. Currently only a few handhelds come with built-in wireless capabilities, and they are some of the most expensive on the market. With the card, wireless access becomes an option for the majority of the market.

Device owners can also share Internet access and network resources by trading the card back and forth.

SD cards and the SD slot have primarily been used as a mechanism for removable storage, but with the recent ratification of the SDIO (secure digital input-output) specification by the SD Association in January, the door is open for handhelds to incorporate other features such as wireless networking and global positioning systems.

Wireless networking on handhelds comes in two forms: 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Wi-Fi networks create a 300-foot zone in which anyone with a laptop or PDA (personal digital assistant) can surf the Web or transfer files without using wires. Bluetooth is a wireless standard used to emit a very powerful signal but over a far shorter range, only 30 feet.

While similar, the two technologies are meant for slightly different uses. Wi-Fi is considered a WAN, or wide area network, for use in large environments like homes or offices. Bluetooth is considered a PAN, or personal area network, in which devices are separated by only a matter of inches. Wi-Fi devices generally connect to the Internet or a network directly, while devices containing Bluetooth communicate with other nearby devices or link to larger networks by going through an ersatz base station such as a cell phone.

Wi-Fi has a higher throughput rate, meaning it can send more data at once than Bluetooth can. But Wi-Fi consumes more power than Bluetooth, and power consumption is always a critical issue in portable devices. Bluetooth generally costs less to incorporate into a product, according to several sources.

Navi Miglani, product marketing manager for SyChip, said he's familiar with the resistance by major PDA makers, who all say the cards need too much power to operate. He says they're interested now that they've seen the SyChip equipment, but he refused to name companies.

"Next-generation chipsets will reduce the power," Miglani said. "We wanted to pull out a product and show it can be done, then refine as we move forward to the next generation of products."

Still, some handheld makers have not totally committed to SDIO. Handspring's Treo 90 device, the first to use the Secure Digital card format, does not support SDIO.

"We don't support SDIO out of the box," said Brian Jaquet, a spokesman for Handspring. "We could support it; it's simply a software upgrade...We're looking at the solutions in the market and the customer demand, and we're evaluating it."

Alan Niebel, an analyst with research firm Web-Feet Research, said that if the power-consumption issues of Wi-Fi have been adequately addressed, it's now up to the developers to create data-intensive applications specifically for handheld devices.

Paul Leeper, chief evangelist for handheld maker Palm, said that another significant feature of SyChip's SD card is its size. SD is the smallest of the major removable card formats.

SyChip's card measures 1.25 inches by 1 inches by 0.1 inches. The card uses Intersil's Prism 3 chipset.