Wireless USB May Finally Arrive This Year

On the surface of things, which is all most consumers ever see, Wireless USB chipsets and devices may be available as early as this year. The timing may need to be taken with a grain of salt, but the ability to connect multiple devices around the desktop at high speeds (480MBps) without a tangle of wires is very attractive indeed. By and large, Wireless USB is going to be a good thing, but (as we usually do at Techdirt) we should also examine what Wireless USB is not. Click “Read More” below to see how Wireless USB compares to Bluetooth and WiFi, and to get a refresher on the standards process that wasn’t.

Timing: We should be aware that vendors often promise their products before they can actually deliver. This is the result of a combination of things. i) Wishful thinking, ii) Lying so that it will appear competitive solutions have no window of opportunity, iii) mistaking a partial solution for a product, for example a chipset for a finished product or a wireless network infrastructure but no client radios.

W-USB vs. Bluetooth: Bluetooth is entrenched in certain markets, such as headsets, PDAs, phone handsets, and even automobiles. It is unlikely to be rapidly displaced. That said, Bluetooth has made poor penetration into PC peripherals such as mice and keyboards, which are likely to go to Wireless USB. Current Bluetooth also uses a fraction of the power of wireless USB, which is a very important consideration for products like headsets. Lastly, Bluetooth has not stood still, and actually has adopted an evolution roadmap that includes the same underlying UWB (Ultra Wideband) radio technology as Wireless USB.

W-USB vs. WiFi: WiFi has a larger range than Wireless USB. Although it uses about double the power, WiFi can travel over a hundred feet. The shorter ranges of Wireless USB make it less practical for Wireless LAN. Also, WiFi is solidly entrenched, and the 'WiFi n' version will greatly increase range and throughput.

Battery Life: Wireless USB does consume a fair amount of power. As such, people must consider whether the recharge interval is worthwhile for cutting the cord. There is limited benefit to ridding oneself of desktop USB wires (which at least are standard) when one has to replace them with a similar tangle of charging wires, docks, and cradles (which WON'T be standard). With these power considerations, Wireless USB may make more sense for devices which connect for shorter intervals, or which are already plugged into power: cameras, camcorders, optical disks, disk burners, printers, free standing hard drives, projectors, but less so USB flash memory, mice, cams, or keyboards. (Overall, though, W-USB has a pretty solid list of uses.)

Global Products: The underlying Ultra Wideband (UWB) radio interface is still throttled by regulatory hurdles. Since it uses a wide swath of spectrum already licensed to other uses, the FCC requires the RF output of UWB to be extremely low, limiting its range. Because of this, Wireless USB throughput starts to fade at 3 meters. But more importantly, on a global basis, the FCC is considered permissive. European regulators have even tighter restrictions which reduce the global market for Wireless USB products.

The Standards Battle: Wireless USB is a case of a failed standards process. A standard was supposed to be defined in 2003 with products shipping by 2005, but the greedy desire to own the Intellectual Property in the standard de-railed the standards process. Even though the standard body reduced the number of competing solutions from 23 to 2, they never managed to reduce the number to 1. The group broke off and basically disagreed to take their two approaches to the market and let the market decide. Mike looked at the standards SNAFU last year.

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