Pulling the plug on the cable jumble
Ultrawideband, or UWB, technology is arriving in consumer devices at a retail outlet near you, with the goal of liberating such devices, particularly PCs, from a rat’s nest of data cables. In the coming months, UWB also will show up inside mobile phones, cameras and printers.
However, finding UWB in the enterprise sector will be more of a challenge. When it does appear, it most likely will be a result of individuals going down to their local Big Box store and buying it off the shelf. “I don’t think it’s going to be the enterprise IT manager looking for another wireless thing to deploy,” said Eric Broockman, CEO of UWB chip-maker Alereon. “It will be someone who has an issue with the whole [laptop] undock/dock procedure.”
Wireless USB — a UWB-enabled version of the standard USB technology found in PCs today — is being used to replace the many cables that link PCs, printers, monitors, PDAs, keyboards, mice and other peripherals, in the process delivering wireless broadband at speeds up to 480 Mb/s for distances up to 3 meters and 110 Mb/s at 10 meters.
“Any application that currently runs on top of USB, once installed on Wireless USB, it runs seamlessly — you can’t tell the difference,” Broockman said. “The user gets the immediate benefit of mobility, [and] the IT manager doesn’t have to administer TCP/IP addresses, MAC addresses or any of the other things associated with Wi-Fi networks.”
He characterized the early UWB applications in the enterprise as “pretty simple.”
“One’s a wireless hub. One’s a wireless docking station,” he said. “When they come into the office, they connect to the wireless hub. When they [leave], they just unplug the power and go home.”
Existing laptops will need a Wireless USB card to communicate with a hub or a docking station, while future models will incorporate onboard Wireless USB. At home, the laptop user will be able to sit on the couch, open up his laptop and use his HDTV as a big screen display with a Wireless USB adapter that would plug into the back of the television.
“You can bring up Adobe Photoshop, and you can look at it on your 60-inch television,” Broockman said. “You can look at YouTube, PowerPoint. It just looks like a big PC monitor. I think that will be a big use.”
Toshiba is among the first major manufacturers shipping Wireless USB as a built-in option in its laptops. Expected to ship in April, the Toshiba Protégé R400 laptop comes with a UWB chipset built by WiQuest on the motherboard. It also will be available with a Toshiba-built wireless dock.
“Wireless docking is something that has a strong enterprise capability,” said Alun Roberts, WiQuest’s vice president of marketing. “We are working with Toshiba to proliferate wireless docking. … Instead of coming into your office, and putting your laptop into a dock — this big piece of mechanical engineering — you just have to get into range of the hub.”
One of the key advantages of UWB — and therefore Wireless USB — is its low power consumption, according to Broockman. “It’s not a long range technology — it’s a modest, in-room technology,” he said, adding that the technology provides “great coverage” in offices and cubicles while avoiding some of the issues that have become associated with wireless local area networks.
“In the case of wireless LANs, the expectation has been you can reach long distances,” Broockman said. “Oftentimes, the wireless LAN has fallen short; then the IT guy has to become a radio engineer.”
Another planned use for UWB concerns eliminating the labyrinth of cables found in many conference rooms. “We’re working with OEMs on extending the concept of wireless docking to the concept of a wireless LCD projector,” Broockman said, adding that a dongle could be used to accommodate laptops that aren’t Wireless USB-enabled. “You don’t have to pass the VGA cable … to get to display something.”
Wireless USB also is expected to find favor in vertical market applications dealing with the transfer of images. “Real-estate agents will use Wireless USB-enabled digital cameras to transfer pictures to a cell phone or a laptop,” Broockman said. “When a doctor wants to display an image, [he can] use Wireless USB to put it up on a larger screen.”
UWB and Wireless USB technology both are being incorporated into new PDAs and phones, with the underlying chipsets also available for other applications, such as a faster version of the Bluetooth personal area network (PAN) protocol expected to be finalized in 2008.
Over time, enterprises will use UWB Bluetooth-enabled smartphones capable of “active sync” [with a PC or server], according to Broockman. “[It] won’t replace your audio, but I think it will be the primary way you move lots of data from your cell phone,” he said. “It’s about seven to ten times more power efficient than [2.4 GHz] Wi-Fi and about fifty times more power efficient than [2.4 GHz] Bluetooth.”
IT managers are likely to be more comfortable with one particular feature of the new technology, said Jason Ellis, director of business development and marketing for Staccato, another UWB chip manufacturer.
“Security for Wireless USB has been mandated,” Ellis said. “Wireless USB always transmits at 128-bit AES encryption. We’ve seen Wi-Fi [security] get better and better, but it’s not trivial for the average consumer.”
But Ellis believes the real potential for UWB in the enterprise is still a few years away.
“When [UWB] chips are available to third-party entities, you’ll see a lot of interesting and unique applications,” he said. “Where we stand today, there are a lot of start-up companies chasing the market. To attract VCs, you have to go into high-volume production, and that means consumer applications.”
Pulse~LINK is one UWB chip developer that has passed over the enterprise market and is focused on consumer applications. In March 2005, the company unveiled its C-Wave technology at a Homeland Defense Conference in Washington D.C., touting it for use in security applications requiring high-speed video transmission. Today, the company is focusing its efforts on broadcasting uncompressed HDTV video around the home, and co-founder Bruce Watkins offers no apologies for the strategic shift.
“We weren’t getting results [out of potential government use] to lead us to believe that we could give our shareholders the fastest possible return,” Watkins said. “You are selling ten to twenty dollar microchips. You have to sell a whole lot of them fast. … Markets that sell 100,000 [units] per year aren’t going to keep you in business. We have to focus on markets that are going to give us millions of units as quickly as possible.”
Capable of delivering data rates greater than 1 Gb/s, Pulse~LINK’s UWB technology is a higher-speed technology compared with Wireless USB and one that Watkins said users will prefer over other alternatives for certain applications.
“We can do a real-time wireless display of anything that’s on your laptop screen. If you want to move your screen onto a fifty-inch plasma, our technology can do it,” he said. “You can’t do any of that using Wi-Fi. If I’m doing such a presentation with a wireless projector, I don’t want to have an image on the wall that is all blocky and breaks up.”