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Rating the road to the wire-free PC

Commentary: Intel aims to eliminate USB, HDMI and the power cable in its quest to create the wire-free PC. But the journey will be a long one, and uneven in terms of its challenges.

Microsoft's HD-10 is a Miracast adapter for TVs. Miracast is a projection technology that works with Wi-Fi networks. Microsoft

"We didn't invent wireless. We just made it ubiquitous." That's how Intel executive Kirk Skaugen described the company's rollout years ago of Centrino, the integrated Wi-Fi capability we all take for granted today. (Apple, though, was the first major PC company to embrace Wi-Fi, back when Intel was backing a forgotten competitive standard called HomeRF.)

At the Intel Developer Forum earlier in September, though, the chip giant laid out its plans for a completely wire-free PC, an objective that even most cell phones -- with their charging cables -- haven't yet achieved. Intel is hoping to make USB cables, HDMI cables and power cables go the way of the Ethernet cable in an attempt to clean up the ball of black spaghetti with which many of us are forced to travel. The company admits that the journey will take a while, but there are unique issues around standards rivalries and partner adoption around each cable replacement that could affect the outcomes.

USB to WiGig: low challenge. Intel created USB, the connection standard that has become the standard for PCs and nearly all smartphones around the world. A few years ago, it tried unsuccessfully to promote a Wireless USB standard that suffered from relatively short range. WiGig also has relatively short range, but it now has the backing of the Wi-Fi Alliance and so therefore has a stronger chance of being built into a wide variety of devices -- from cell phones to TVs -- that support the standard today. Intel sees WiGig in the near term as showing up in docking stations, which ironically serve the purpose of bridging us back to the wires that we supposedly won't eventually need.

HDMI to Miracast/WiD: moderate challenge. Speaking of ironies, one of the significant near-term competitors to WiGig -- at least as far as video applications -- is Miracast, which Intel also backs, but there are a few significant differences. The major difference is that WiGig is a data-transfer technology like Wi-Fi, but with shorter range in the 60GHz spectrum band. Miracast, on the other hand, is a projection technology that works with existing Wi-Fi networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. In this latter respect, Miracast is more akin to Apple's AirPlay and Google's Google Cast. It is a better fit for today's networks and should work at longer ranges even if it can't transmit video quality that is as high as WiGig's.

Miracast has gotten off to a slow start but there are signs that it is picking up. Microsoft, which added support for it in Windows 8.1, recently announced a small Miracast puck as an accessory for its Lumia smartphones. (Nokia had also been a backer, prior to Microsoft's acquisition of its mobile devices operation.) Amazon's FireTV acts as a Miracast receiver. And at IDF, Dell announced the Chromecast-like Dell Cast, which supports Miracast as one of its two modes. While the Dell Cast is $70, Miracast backers say pricing for TV adapters should come down to Chromecast-level pricing before too long. As noted, Miracast competes on some level with both Google Cast and AirPlay, but even Google is a backer, at least officially.

Power to Rezence: high challenge. Power: the final cable frontier. Intel's desire to sever the charging cord is challenging for two reasons. First, the company's horse in this race, Rezence, is locked in a heated battle with Qi, which has gotten off to an early start with smartphones. There is also a third player, Duracell Powermat. Plus, Apple could go its own way as it may be doing with the inductive charging on the Apple Watch.

Second, unlike with the other technologies, standards such as Rezence and Qi aren't really as much about completely replacing the power cord as they are about displacing it by distributing the charging capability across a surface such as a pad or desk. Creating the illusion of a world without outlets -- at least to the extent that the power cord connector could disappear -- will require ubiquitous infrastructure and so both the Rezence and Qi groups have been trying to line up locations such as coffee shops and airline lounges to deploy their standard. There is also potentially cooler technology on the horizon from the likes of WiTricity and UBeam that would do away with the need for having charging surfaces.

On the other hand, smartphones using wireless charging -- such as the new Lumia 830 from Microsoft -- do not have the bulk they once required, and any added thickness would be even easier to disguise in the larger body of a laptop or tablet. Intel is doing more to save us from power outlets in the near term by greatly improving the power efficiency of its chips, allowing products with 10 or even 20 hours of battery life. But for the foreseeable future, laptops and tablets will need to be tied down to drink up at night.