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Wireless in 2003: 
CES Shows Consumers the Way
by Wayne Caswell, Chief Visionary - CAZITech Consulting Services

After such a tough year economically, I was happy to see so much activity at CES and learn that attendance was up – over 100,000.  It was clear that all sorts of wireless markets are hot – from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to mobile phones, GPS, satellite radio, and more.  While all of this activity will benefit consumers and their home networks, it was also clear that product designers must balance trade-offs and make choices appropriate for each specific application.  You can’t get it all.


Wi-Fi

Consumers who installed wireless networks based on IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi) drove strong sales in 2002.  Allied Business Intelligence reported chipset sales of 23-25M units in 2002, up from 7.9M in 2001.  They had earlier predicted just 14-15M chipsets, so this growth was good news.  Further, ABI forecasted sales of 148M chipsets in 2007, worth some $1.13 Billion.

With such growth and the importance of the consumer market, I was surprised to find no Wi-Fi pavilion and had to search for Wi-Fi products, but they weren’t hard to find.

Trusted Brands with Networking Kits

Beyond the early adopters, most consumers need products that are easy to buy, install and use, so I was happy to find several examples of wireless networking kits that included an access point and PC adapter.  Shown here is the Wireless Desktop Kit from Microsoft, which includes a USB adapter for a desktop PC.

New 802.11g Products

The current 802.11b specification supports speeds up to 11 Mbps using the 2.4 GHz license-free ISM band, and some companies have even pushed that speed faster with proprietary extensions to the spec that can go up to 22 Mbps. 

Actiontec, Buffalo, D-Link and NetGear each used CES to introduce new products based on a draft version of the newer 802.11g specifications.  802.11g promises faster speeds than .11b – up to 54 Mbps – and ensures backward compatibility by using the same 2.4 GHz frequency band, but .11g has not yet been ratified by the IEEE, and it still suffers from RF interference and lacks the needed quality-of-service guarantees.  To accommodate last minute changes to the spec and future QoS and security enhancements, the firmware in these new products can be upgraded when needed.

Most consumers will feel safer buying wireless products based on the proven 802.11b technology.  Why should you consider 802.11g?  Its faster performance is aimed at high-bandwidth applications such as home entertainment networks with CD-quality audio and DVD-quality video streaming.  But before spending the money, first understand your needs.

This report includes many products that can already stream digital music and video using 802.11b, so there’s no hurry to move to .11g unless you just want the latest and greatest.  Until a final spec is approved and certified products are widely available, make sure to get all of your components from one vendor.

Multi-band Chipsets and Products

Both Broadcom and Texas Instruments were promoting their multi-mode chipsets, which can allow wireless devices to automatically sense and adapt to different Wi-Fi network technologies: 802.11b, .11g, and .11a.  Companies already using these multi-band chipsets include AMD, Ambit, Askey, Belkin, Bromax, Fujitsu, Gemtek, Hewlett Packard, Linksys, Melco/Buffalo, NetGear, and Scientific Atlanta.

802.11a is a faster version of Wi-Fi that has already been ratified, and certified products are already available.  802.11a uses the 5 GHz frequency band to offer the same 54 Mbps performance as .11g, and some companies are even shipping proprietary turbo-mode products that push the spec to 108 Mbps.  The different versions of Wi-Fi products can cause confusion, and multi-mode, multi-band chipsets will help eliminate such confusion.

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Note that while 802.11b and .11g both use 2.4 GHz frequencies, .11a uses 5 GHz, a frequency that can limit its coverage area due to laws of physics, where higher frequencies suffer from more signal attenuation over distance and through walls.  But 5GHz has other advantages and is a much cleaner band with more bandwidth available.  It doesn’t have to contend with interference found in the crowded 2.4 GHz band – from microwave ovens, cordless phones, energy saving light bulbs, baby monitors, Bluetooth devices, and nearby neighbors with these devices or their own wireless LANs.  For densely populated areas such as apartments and multi-tenant office towers, 802.11a also boasts more non-overlapping channels so it’s easier to avoid interference from neighboring WLANs.

Next in the trend for multi-band chipsets are the ones that can automatically shift between wireless LANs based on flavors of 802.11 and wide area networks based on cellular technologies.  These are in development, but I found no examples at CES.  They’ll eventually let you roam between local and wide area networks with your handheld PC or phone.

Extending the Range of 802.11

CES included a couple of ways of extending the range of wireless networks, but there were other techniques not shown; so let me first digress into a discussion of these alternatives.

Radio vs. Sound – Radio signals and sound are both effected by the same laws of physics, where signal strength (loudness) diminishes with distance or when going through materials like walls.  As with sound, radio signals with lower frequencies (2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz) have less attenuation (signal loss) with distance or through materials, and higher frequencies are more able to punch through noisy environments.  For that reason, fog horns used on ships are heard over long distances, and when you pull up next to a teen’s car at a stop light, you may only hear the bass from his sub-woofer.  Note that most car horns include a low and high sound, one for country driving (long distance) and one for city (punch through the traffic noise).

High vs. Low Frequencies – For home networks, the use of 802.11a offers more bandwidth, less RF interference, and fewer non-overlapping channels, but since it operates at the higher 5 GHz frequency band, range can be an issue.  Still, since it starts out so much faster than 802.11b, it doesn’t much matter that its signal strength diminishes faster with distance.  And there are many other ways to extend range.  These include more sensitive receivers and high-gain antennas (like hearing aids with the power turned up), directional antennas, steerable antennas, mesh networks, and repeaters.

Directional Antennas – FCC rules govern the amount of transmit power allowed for wireless networks, but instead of using more power with your omni-directional antenna, you can extend the range with directional antennas that work like a cheerleader’s megaphone.  Highly directional antennas are often used to securely transmit data between buildings that are miles apart, but they can also be used by someone miles away to listen to network traffic from omni-directional antennas, so security remains a concern.

Steerable Antennas – Related to the highly directional antennas are new steerable antennas that can spin quickly to point to one client device and then another, but this happens electronically.  Service providers may use steerable antennas in order to cover a much larger space with fewer towers and transmitters.  While CES was not the show for these applications, one interesting example is from Wheat Wireless, which has transmitters along the U.S. coastline to transmit Wi-Fi signals up to 30 miles out to sea for yachts and cruise ships.  Other companies in this maritime market (including Coastal Wave, the Global Nautical Network, iDockUSA, and TeleSea) have deployed wireless networks in marinas, but one of their biggest challenges is the large number of aluminum masts and hulls that reflect the radio signals.

Sensitive Receivers – Chip maker Magis Networks has been gaining support for its Air5 wireless technology, which is based on the 54 Mbps, 5 GHz-band 802.11a physical spec, combined with its own proprietary TDMA-based MAC-layer QoS technology, which prioritizes data packets for voice and multimedia apps.  Air5 significantly extends the range and performance of 802.11a.  I’m told that it offers throughput of 30 Mbps at up to 250’ and can support 6-7 simultaneous streams of SDTV at 3 Mbps each.  Air5 can also stream HDTV at 20 Mbps and still have enough capacity for two SDTV programs and 2-4 Mbps of data.

Wireless Repeaters – Multiple access points can spread around an Ethernet network to cover the space of large office buildings, but this is not practical in homes without structured wiring.  A new alternative is the 802.11b-HomePlug Bridge.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance had a pavilion at CES, and several companies showed products that bridge between 802.11b and HomePlug, the networking standard for 110-v power lines with speeds up to 14 Mbps.  Most of the products, including one that I saw from Siemens, are based on a reference design offered by Intellon, a pioneer in power line technology.

The power line bridge concept would also work well with Bluetooth, but I didn’t hear of any products.  The group did say that they are working on a new HomePlug AV spec that would support speeds approaching 100 Mbps.  With that performance, it can act as a backbone for 802.11a wireless networks or IEEE 1394 networks.  I continue to be impressed.

Mesh Networks – An important form of wireless repeater that was not shown at CES is the mesh network, where each wireless transceiver also acts as a repeater.  Mesh networks allow a client device to talk to an access point through other clients that act as repeaters.  While there is some latency delay in the process, it’s minimal, and the distance between clients is shorter than between the AP and farthest client.  As a result, performance may be greatly improved.

Smart Displays

I’ve long been a champion of notebook, tablet, and handheld PCs for use with interactive TV, where family members use their favorite device to play along with TV shows and games.  Now there’s a new form factor, the Smart Display, which I’m not excited about.

Microsoft used CES to promote its Windows Powered Smart Display as the evolution of the PC monitor.  These wireless, touch-screen monitors let you use your PC from any room in the home.  Intel and National Semiconductor showed hardware reference designs, and the first Smart Displays were on display from companies like BenQ, Samsung and ViewSonic at a cost of $999 or more.  Even though some vendors have models that plug into the PC as your primary display and then un-dock to roam, they are still pricy, and I’d rather buy a notebook or tablet PC.

Other problems persist, and in my view, Smart Display should not have been launched until these were addressed.  All applications run on the PC, and only one person can use the PC at a time.  That means that if Yvonne’s on the PC, then I can’t use the Smart Display; or if I’m on the Smart Display, then she can’t use the PC without knocking me off.  Also, Smart Display can’t send video from the PC since it needs more bandwidth than 802.11b provides.  And your PC must be running Windows XP Professional Edition with Service Pack 1 installed – not a typical consumer setup.  While these problems interfere with my vision of interactive TV and are severe limitations, Microsoft says they will eventually be addressed.  Let’s hope so.

An eager Microsoft rep told me that he likes the Smart Display as a more convenient alternative to unhooking all of the wires from a notebook PC.  I told him that my notebook simply plugs into a docking station for power, printer, Ethernet, external speakers, USB link to my PDA, and a phone line.  He then said that with the Smart Display, he doesn’t risk dropping the unit and losing his data.

Tablets & Wireless TVs

Handheld and tablet PCs that can be used on the sofa to access the Internet and stream music, images and television can accelerate the interactive TV market, with family members competing with each other and the TV-watching world.  Casio and SonicBlue used 802.11b to stream NTSC video programming from a PC or other source.

Toshiba showed a wireless TV that also used 802.11b to stream its video.  It’s currently only available in Japan.

Wireless Handhelds

Even smaller and more portable than a tablet PC are the handheld devices based on Palm OS or Windows Pocket PC.  The screen resolution and contrast will keep getting better, but the color models are already pretty good and are plenty useful as a tablet for all sort of residential applications.  With a wireless connection, they can also be used as a universal remote or to control home automation systems.  They can even enhance your TV experience by presenting an interactive program guide, accessing online information, playing along with game shows, or streaming audio and video content.

And now it’s even easier to add wireless capabilities to basic models at affordable prices.  Replacing the need for a special attachment and battery-sucking PC Card adapter, there were many 802.11 and Bluetooth adapters in smaller formats, including CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD), Multimedia Card (MMC), and Sony Memory Stick.  SanDisk, for example, showed a $99 SD card that’s also available in a model that includes 256MB of memory for $149.

Dell’s Axim, which is far beyond basic in my judgment, comes in two models that sell for just $199 and $299 after rebate, and for less than $300 you can get a 300 MHz Intel® XscaleTM processor, an indoor/outdoor color TFT display, 32MB SDRAM, 32MB Flash memory, 128MB SD memory option, and an 11 Mbps Wi-Fi adapter.

The high-end handhelds go further by blending PDA functions with digital camera, phone, and even global positioning system.  Most have wireless capabilities built-in while some go wireless with simple upgrades and support Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or cellular networks.  It was interesting to see just how small Wi-Fi adapters are getting – SyChip’s Wi-Fi SD card, for example.

Some of the other interesting handhelds include the Handspring Treo, Samsung NEXiO S160, Sharp Zaurus SL-C700, Siemens SX56, Sony CLIE PEG-NZ90, and T-Mobile SideKick.  The display on the $199 SideKick swivels around to reveal a two-thumb QUERTY keyboard.  Its built-in wireless capabilities are cellular so you can access email from anywhere without having to search for a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Sharp’s Zaurus SL-C700 looks like a traditional PDA, but rotate the 3.7-inch display and it looks more like a small notebook PC with Qwerty keyboard and impressive 640x480 color display.   The unit supports CF, SD, and MMC adapters, so it’s logical that it can support wireless connections, but the reviews that I’ve read say that 802.11b sucks so much battery life that the device lasts just 15 minutes and quickly becomes useless.  This same battery issue applies to the other handhelds, but maybe to a lesser extent.

The newest Sony CLIE is a bit large (and expensive at about $800) for a handheld, but it includes a digital camera with flash and integrated lens cover that can take 2M pixel stills and video clips.  It has integrated support for Bluetooth networks and add-on support for 802.11b to make it easy to send the pictures or receive email and attachments that can include Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat, along with many image formats.  The CLIE line is famous for outstanding battery life, and this model has a removal Smart Lithium battery.  If battery life is an issue, just carry a spare and recharge later.  The Smart battery technology keeps track of how many times it’s been charged, how many minutes remain, and more.

While most other handhelds need an adapter to support 802.11b, the Samsung NEXiO S160 comes with Wi-Fi integrated, along with an 800x400 screen and a CF slot for other expansion capabilities.

Audio Connections

If you’re tired of listening to digital music on small PC speakers, check out the wireless products that connect your PC and stereo system.

900MHz Audio Transmitters – Inexpensive audio transmitters from companies like Jensen have been around for some time.  The Jensen Matrix™, for example, includes a transmitter unit that plugs into the PC’s sound card, and a matching receiver that plugs into the stereo system.  Like wireless speakers, most audio transmitters use analog radio technology at 900 MHz for acceptable sound quality as long as there’s no radio interference.  But these simple devices just replace wire, and there’s no way to control the music, so you have to go to the PC to pick a different play list or radio station. 

FM Audio – Other inexpensive products use FM radio technology so you can tune an FM radio to the “PC channel.”  An extension of this concept is from Digital Innovations, which showed its Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer.  This MP3 player includes an FM tuner and a built-in FM transmitter that lets you broadcast your songs up to 20 feet to any FM radio, using an FM channel that you choose manually or that the Neros chooses automatically.  That’s an interesting way of connecting to the car stereo, home stereo, or a friend’s stereo.

The $249 basic model has 128MB of embedded flash that holds 2 hours of recorded MP3 music or FM broadcasts.  You can press a button to sample songs from FM radio and then later identify the marked songs, assuming they’re listed in the online Neuros database.  You can also record voice or an external audio source into MP3 format.  A $150 upgrade of a 20GB hard disk can hold 5,000 songs, which is enough for a week or two of continuous use.

802.11b Audio – The Motorola simplefi™ won a CES Innovations award last year with its ability to stream MP3 files and Internet radio from a PC to a stereo using HomeRF.  This year it was reintroduced with new codec support for Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, the ability to control music from the PC, and new content services from Virgin Radio, Shoutcast, and Listen.com's Rhapsody.  Motorola also described plans to support the more popular 802.11b standard. 

A popular feature of simplefi has been its docking remote and user-friendly display that makes navigation a breeze.  You can quickly browse through channels, playlists and tracks and press the Tag it!™ button to save metadata about a favorite song (artist, title, track) so you can buy the CD, get concert tickets, and more.  You can buy one now for $379.

While simplefi is built upon a hardware reference design from SimpleDevices Inc., Rockford Fosgate picked up another of their reference designs and introduced Omnifi, a hard-drive-based music player for cars, boats, and RVs.  Their vision is to automatically synch with the home PC when pulling into the driveway, but since it takes a long time to first load 20 GB of music at 11 Mbps, Omnifi also supports a USB 2.0 connection.  Omnifi supports the Tag it! function and should be available in March or April for $599.

The cd3o Music Server runs on your PC, streaming music to cd3o Network MP3 Players on a home network based on either Ethernet or 802.11b.  Playback can be controlled from your PC or with the Voice-Guide™ remote control, and cd3o lets you play different music in different rooms at the same time.  Voice-Guide lets you browse your music library by artist, album title, genre, or playlist, and CD-DJ™ announces your songs for you, with a synthesized voice designed to sound like a DJ.  Cd3o has three models: the c100 for Ethernet, the c200 using 802.11b, and the c300 extended range wireless LAN streaming MP3 player.  They’re priced at $149, $199 and $249 respectively.

Satellite Radio in Homes – Delphi’s XM SKUFi Radio System is a palm-sized XM radio receiver that can easily move between a car, home stereo system, and the new Delphi battery-powered boombox shown here.  The boom box costs $129, and the plug-in receiver costs $99.  Together, they offer commercial-free channels anywhere for less than $10/month.

Video Connections

Networking TiVo – If you own a TiVo Series 2 digital video recorder (DVR) with USB adapter, you’ll soon be able to share content with PCs, MACs, and other TiVo devices on your 802.11b wireless home network.  This spring TiVo will offer a $99 Home Media Option, which is software that lets you attach any USB 802.11b adapter.

Connected ReplayTV – SonicBlue introduced its new ReplayTV 4000 series of DVRs that can be networked using Ethernet and include larger hard disks to hold up to 320 hours of TV programs and video clips.  They were not strongly promoting the use of 802.11b because of range limitations and other factors that can effect video quality.

PC as DVR – But what if, instead of TiVo, you use a PC with a TV tuner card and software like SnapStream PVS to display and record TV programs?  And what if you now want to watch this content in the living room?  There were many new products at CES that let you do just that.

SonicBlue’s GoVideo D2730 will let you stream digital music (MP3 & WMA), images, and video clips (MPEG-1 and -2) from your PC to your TV.  It works with either a PC Card Ethernet adapter (included) or an optional 802.11b adapter.  With DVR software loaded in your PC, GoVideo becomes a PC-based alternative to the company’s ReplayTV.

PRISMIQ’s $250 MediaPlayer is an inexpensive set-top box from the co-founder of 2Wire, Inc. and his Austin, TX startup.  It lets you access your digital music, images, and video from the TV set, along with instant messaging and browsing the Web.  Just as with similar devices from HP, SonicBlue, Sony, and Diego, the PRISMIQ MediaPlayer will connect to wired or wireless home networks, and home networking is accessed through an Ethernet port or PC Card slot and 802.11b (or 802.11a) adapter.  But what sets it apart is its ability to support so many digital formats, including MP3, WMA, and AC3 music formats and MPEG-1, -2, and -4 video formats.

The Wireless Importance of MPEG-4 – MPEG-4 is a relatively new compression codec for video that needs far less bandwidth and storage than today’s MPEG-2 format.  Rather than demanding 3Mbps for DVD-quality video, MPEG-4 offers nearly the same quality at just 750Kbps – a huge savings.  And rather than 20Mbps for HDTV, MPEG-4 needs only 2-3Mbps.  This will eventually help 802.11b networks carry multiple streams of video, but the standard still needs QoS to ensure good video quality.  Several companies promoted MPEG-4 products, and I’m including some of them even though they aren’t all wireless products.

Add video to your MP3 player – Archos introduced its modular Video AV140 jukebox, which sells for $389.95.  It displays JPEG images and plays MP3 music and MPEG-4 videos from its built-in 40MB hard disk, but what I found most interesting was the optional $99.95 camera attachment that can take 1.3M pixel still pictures or MPEG-4 video at 30 fps and 640x352 resolution.  You can also record directly from a TV receiver or DVD player and then watch on the 1.5-inch color LCD, or connect to a TV.

Other MPEG-4 Cameras – Panasonic showed a small digital camera and video recorder, the D-SNAP (SV-AV30), which is available in Japan today for about $399.  It records video in MPEG-4 format.  Samsung also uses MPEG-4 in its $499 ITCAM-7, a video camera that records onto hard disk instead of tape.  With MPEG-4, it can store over an hour of video on a 1.5GB disk at 640x480 resolution.

HDTV Streaming – Sanyo’s booth included a demonstration of wireless high-definition television, with a prototype wireless television system that streamed video around the house at up to 30 Mbps using technology from Magis Networks that extends the capability of 802.11a.  Magis also used its Air5 technology to show wireless 1394 in VividLogic’s booth.  Vivid is known for its digital home entertainment software based on IEEE 1394 protocols and Home Audio Video interface (HAViTM) middleware.

Video Conferencing – Wi-Fi was designed and optimized for data networking, and we’re just starting to see the technology stretched to support music and TV entertainment.  When we next add voice services, we can end up with video conferencing at the TV set, even though there’s no telephone or broadband outlet there.  Videophones are nothing new, but the technology has been a tough sell to consumers, and the highest cost has been the screen. 

D-Link showed i2eye, a $300 appliance ($500 for two) that may bring high-quality videoconferencing to homes.  The i2eye delivers sounds and images to a TV screen and lets users conference locally or across the country using any broadband connection.  It includes an integrated microphone and adjustable tilt/focus camera. Video is streamed at up to 30 frames per second.

Microsoft Media2Go – “Media2Go” is the code name for Microsoft’s software reference platform for handheld media players that let you carry your music, pictures, and video with you as you go.  Sync to your PC and then watch the latest news or sitcom while you commute; entertain the kids in the back seat; or share photos and music with friends.

Media2Go supports the various audio, image, and video formats, including Windows Media and MPEG, and it provides an easy way to manage and play all of the digital content.  The reference design included a 20GB disk to store 8,000 songs, 30,000 2M pixel pictures, or 175 hours of VHS-quality video.

Bluetooth

What is Bluetooth? – Where Wi-Fi is a wireless LAN protocol, Bluetooth is essentially a short-distance cable replacement that overcomes many shortfalls of infrared.  Bluetooth uses the same 2.4 GHz radio frequency band as Wi-Fi, so it doesn’t need a line-of-sight like infrared, and its radio signals can penetrate walls and travel up to 30 feet.

There are more than 2,000 members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), but that figure is misleading since there’s no cost to join.  Still many companies are now introducing Bluetooth products based on the version 1.0 specification, which was just finalized last year. Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth had a pavilion at CES to help gain industry momentum. 

Adapters – Eventually, phones, PDAs, notebook PCs and other devices will have Bluetooth built-in so phones can access the contact list in a PDA or notebook, or so a PC can use the phone to dial the Internet, all without wires.  But there must be a way to upgrade existing devices, so I was glad to see a Bluetooth dongle for Samsung’s phones and a memory stick adapter for Sony products. 

3Com and TDK each showed USB dongles and PC Cards for laptops, as well as hub-like access points that increase the range from the normal 30 feet to 200 feet, even through walls. 

3Com’s Bluetooth card will sell for $119, and its USB adapter will sell for $109, with both available in March. The 3Com Wireless Access Point 1000 will sell for approximately $500 when it comes out in the summer.

TDK’s card and USB adapter will be available in April and cost $150 and $140 respectively, while its AP will run about $250 and be available in July.

Keyboards, Mice and Headsets – Microsoft introduced a wireless keyboard and mouse based on Bluetooth, and most mobile phone companies had models with Bluetooth integrated.  That way, they can connect to not just handheld and notebook PCs, but headsets.  The market for wireless headsets is supposedly driven by laws in Europe and some U.S. states that ban the use mobile phones while driving, at least unless you can keep both hands on the wheel.  With a Bluetooth headset, the thinking goes, you don’t even have to take the phone out of your briefcase or purse when it rings, just say, “answer.”  But I never really bought into that vision because of the added cost.  That changed at CES, where I got a demonstration of UmeVoice’s noise-canceling headset and Sound ID’s earpiece that enhances sounds much like a hearing aid.  Both are designed for noisy environments, and one lets people hear you better while the other lets you hear them better.

One more interesting application, which I saw in one of the evening press events was Finger System’s iPen, which is shown below in a cut-away view to show its electronics and battery.

Ultra-wideband & ZigBee

Ultra-wideband (UWB) and ZigBee are emerging and potentially disruptive wireless standards which I hoped to learn more about at CES, but I found no ZigBee demos and only one company with UWB – Extreme Spectrum.

Companies working with the ZigBee Alliance, and the IEEE 802.15.4 task group, which expects to adopt ZigBee, are those companies wanting the ultimate in low cost and long battery life. 

ZigBee vs. Bluetooth – Where Bluetooth promoters still talk about a $5 radio solution, none have delivered on that low cost, so ZigBee is a new alternative.  The ZigBee group is working on sub-$2 radio solutions for all sorts of embedded applications where even a $5 radio is too expensive, such as in $10 smoke alarms, security sensors, remote thermostats, A/V universal remotes, gas meter readers, keyboards and mice, toys, and much more.

ZigBee vs. Wi-Fi – While some homes may have half a dozen Wi-Fi devices (e.g. PCs and set-top boxes), it’s easy to imagine homes with a hundred ZigBee devices.  That large market potential has attracted many industry players, but they are different players.  Companies like Philips and Mattel Toys are involved with ZigBee.

ZigBee Specs – It gets much longer batter life than Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  ZigBee devices will likely run 6-24 months on just two AA batteries, and the technology is even being tested for tire pressure sensors, where battery life must match tread life.  The group trades off performance.  They get about 250 Kbps using the 2.4 GHz frequency band, 40 Kbps using 915 MHz (in the U.S.), or 20 Kbps using 868 MHz (in Europe).

UWB – While ZigBee is much slower than Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, UWB should be much faster – up to 480 Mbps within the space of a room.  But what really differentiates the UWB architecture is how it spreads its microwave energy across a much larger spectrum in a way designed to avoid interference.  What makes UWB potentially disruptive is how it can work across bands that are allocated for other uses, such as police scanners and mobile phones, but without interfering with those existing networks. 

Proponents argue that UWB could eventually eliminate much of the spectrum-allocation worries of the FCC, which has given some support for early UWB products but has put tight constraints on the allowed spectrum and power levels.  Even with the uncertainty of future changes to FCC regulations, market research firm Allied Business Intelligence sees the potential sale of over 45M units by 2007, with revenue of about $1.4 Billion.  If the FCC were to relax its UWB constraints, then this prediction could be way too low.

Conclusions

After such a tough year economically, I was happy to see so much activity at CES and learn that attendance was up – over 100,000.  It was clear that all sorts of wireless markets are hot – from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to mobile phones, GPS, satellite radio, and more.  While all of this activity will benefit consumers and their home networks, it was also clear that product designers must balance trade-offs and make choices appropriate for each specific application.  You can’t get it all.

Trade-offs

·         Range – The most obvious way to extend range is with more power, but there are regulatory limits to contend with.  Other ways to extend power include more sensitive receivers, specialized antennas, and mesh networks.

·         Battery Life – Portable devices that rely on battery power are useless when the battery dies, so designers must either manage battery life or provide easy ways to recharge (see “Wire-Free Electricity” below).

·         Size – Circuits keep getting smaller, which is good since size and weight are especially important to the success of portable devices.  But sometimes to get into a small size, you must give up other things, like larger batteries and antennas.

·         Speed – Some apps need lots of bandwidth, but since others don’t, why pay for what you don’t need?

·         Cost – It’s not just market size and the use of standard components that influence costs.  It also depends on design trade-offs.

·         Reliability – Radio interference from neighboring devices can cripple a wireless network or even shut it down entirely, and each solution to this problem has implications.

·         Security – It’s a serious problem when signals go through walls, and WEP security encryption adds complexity and reduces performance.  Most security solutions are way too complex for consumers, so they aren’t used, and worry about unprotected networks can stall the market.

·         Mobility – Since portable devices can roam about, how can they connect from outside the home?  Mobile products need to sense and adapt to whatever network is available, with smooth hand-off between networks.

·         Differentiation – Designers want unique features to help their products stand out in the crowd, but sometimes this means extending beyond standards.

Wire-Free Electricity

I’ll conclude this article with a description of two products designed to make it easier to charge the batteries of your notebook PC, PDA, cell phone, or electric drill.  Two companies, MobileWise and Splashpower, introduced revolutionary wireless power transfer solutions that can power and recharge a range of portable electronic devices – without wires or plugs.

They each offer a two-piece solution that includes a charging pad and a small receiver module installed in each device.  Power is transmitted with DC currents but without physical contact, so it’s safe to put a drink on the pad.  They don’t use electromagnetic or RF fields, so there’s no interference with your wireless networks and no worry about your hard disks.  If this new technology takes off, we could see charging pads built into desks, cars, and airplane tables, but for that to happen, we need standards.

Wayne is a home networking visionary, frequent speaker, and author.  His vision includes consumers with easy access to services and service providers with equal access to consumers, all without worrying about wiring or incumbent competitors that control the infrastructure.  He has been actively involved in industry standards for residential gateways and wireless networks and wrote the market research report, "Information Appliances and Pervasive Net Access."  Wayne retired from IBM after 30 years and then worked for Siemens IC Mobile as the Communications Chairman for the HomeRF Working Group, where he promoted home networking strategies that converge cordless telephone and wireless data networks to integrate voice and data applications.  He now runs CAZITech Consulting Services.