Wireless USB: It lives?

Wireless USB: It lives?

Could it be true? A representative of chipmaker Alereon told me recently that products using the long-awaited, much-delayed, oft-embattled Wireless USB standard will be released next month. And I may be a sucker, but I believe him.

The system for providing a simple, high-speed, short-range connection ranks high on the list of technologies that are often touted but seldom seen. Over the years, I've heard innumerable advocates of the technology say its release was right around the corner, yet it never seemed to make it. Alereon's Mike Krell promises they really mean it this time.

He said the first products will consist of a USB dongle you plug into your PC and a USB hub that connects wirelessly to that dongle. You could plug in a USB printer or hard drive and use them within the same room without running wires from your PC -- a nice convenience, but not all that thrilling in and of itself.

(By the way, you may have heard of a similar system offered by Belkin. That was originally based on a competing technology produced by rival chipmaker Freescale. The whole soap opera of the battle over this standard isn't worth rehashing, but Krell says Freescale abandoned the technology, which didn't sell well, about one and a half years ago.)

Wireless USB will get more interesting once it's built into PCs and devices. Krell said it should start getting built into laptops (as an extra-cost option) in the third quarter of this year and show up natively on some printers and hard drives in the fourth quarter. Next year, you'll start to see it built into other devices: cameras, TVs, cell phones, DVRs and more.

As devices natively support the standard, the transfer speed should increase. First-generation products will have to translate from the wired to the wireless USB standard on both ends of the transaction, meaning the real-life transfer speeds will be 30-60mbps -- faster than most non-802.11n Wi-Fi connections, but much less than a wired USB 2.0 connection, Krell said. Eliminate the translation on the PC side and speeds should rise to 70-90Mbps. When the technology lives natively on both devices, he says you'll see real-world speeds of 240-260Mbps, pretty darn fast for any wireless technology if it actually materializes. The technology is only intended to traverse about 30 feet, essentially within a room.

Building the standard into devices will also make it easier and more useful. Krell gave a couple of examples: You return from a trip, put your digital camera on your coffee table and your TV detects its presence and offers to display your travel photos. Or before you leave for work in the morning, your DVR automatically downloads its latest recordings to your portable video player.

Of course, there are lots of twists in the road that could get in the way of that vision. Wireless USB has to make pairing devices easier and more foolproof than Bluetooth's system is. And music and video producers may step in to gum up such an easy way of transferring their work.

Still, I'm looking forward to finally seeing Wireless USB products appear. Let's hope they're worth the wait.

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Edward N. Albro

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