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3/9/2006
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Wireless USB Vs. Cable-Free USB

Intel promotes its WiMedia wireless media standard for personal area networks at its developer forum.

We all use Wi-Fi, and we’ve heard the hype about WiMax. But most of the new wireless technology introduced at this week’s Intel Developer Forum is based around yet another new standard: WiMedia. Despite the similar-sounding names, the only thing the three have in common is that Intel wants to build them into laptops by the end of this year.

WiMedia is closer to Bluetooth, intended for personal area networks that link cell phones to PDAs, or PCs to peripherals like keyboards and printers. The difference is that it’s up to 160 times faster and uses less power, so it can replace a lot more wires. The Intel demos stream high-definition video, while other vendors in its WiMedia Alliance are showing off Wireless USB. Due this summer, the first products are radio dongles that plug into existing USB ports, though digital cameras, MP3 players, and other gadgets with native WiMedia radios will follow soon after.

But USB cables will be needed for a while longer. In July, Belkin will ship the first dongles based on CableFree USB, a rival system developed by Motorola spin-off Freescale. This does exactly the same thing as Wireless USB, but the two systems can’t talk to each other. And neither is going away: The WiMedia Alliance and Freescale’s rival Ultra Wideband Forum have each signed up more than 200 members.

Freescale doesn’t have as many blue-chip backers as Intel--the only household names in the Forum are Samsung and Lucent, while the Alliance has most of the PC industry--but it does have a few months’ time lead in manufacturing. Its products are also slightly easier to use because they don’t require any new drivers for the wireless link itself. “WiMedia is USB in name only,” says Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale. “Our system works with your existing USB hardware and drivers, but Intel wants you to upgrade your PC.”

Intel doesn’t dispute this entirely. It has always said its wireless strategy is ultimately driven by a desire to grow the market for CPUs. However, WiMedia Alliance members point out that installing a driver only has to happen once and won’t be an issue at all when WiMedia member Microsoft builds support into Windows Vista. They also point out that Freescale’s lead is slipping: The Belkin product was originally due to ship this month.

Vendor rivalries aren’t the technologies’ only problem. Although approved by the FCC, both are still illegal in most of the world because they might interfere with other wireless systems. However, the industry is confident that other countries will follow, particularly as the next version of Bluetooth will be based around either the WiMedia or the UWB Forum spec.

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