June 11, 2004

Wireless Standards

Five Short-Range Wireless Standards Seen Combining

Five Short-Range Wireless Standards Seen Combining

Fri Jun 11, 8:33 AM ET

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By Lucas van Grinsven, European Technology Correspondent

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Five short-range wireless connection technologies are fighting for the industry limelight, but sector specialists said on Friday that companies would eventually combine the five to make life easier.

Automatic wireless connections between electronic devices are the Holy Grail of the computer and consumer electronics industry.

Companies hope consumers will buy new devices once they are able to listen to their music collections anywhere in the house or on the road, see DVDs and photo albums on any screen, or program their hard disk recorders from a Web site.

This brave new world, in which a car's lights, speakers and cell phone are all connected to the dashboard with wireless chips, may be here in a few years, or in some cases sooner.

"We haven't even scratched the surface," Paul Marino, manager of connectivity at Philips semiconductors unit, told Reuters at a Wireless Connectivity industry show.

In many cases, consumers will not be aware of the connection, said Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee alliance, a group of companies promoting a ultra-low-power connection that can be built into lamps, fire alarms or heating systems.

"We're trying to submerge the wireless part of it. Consumers are not supposed to think wireless, just functionality," he told Reuters. They should be able to buy two smoke detectors and connect them by pressing one button, he added.

The ZigBee technology, backed by Motorola, Honeywell, Samsung Electronics, ABB, Invensys and Mitsubishi Electric, will also be used in lighting and energy systems in new buildings in two to three years, he said.


ZigBee already brings benefits when used in a single location in just a few devices. Other wireless technologies rely on the "network effect," which makes them useful only when plenty of other devices have the same built-in technology.

Wireless LAN, or Wi-Fi, is an example of a short-range wireless technology that has gained sufficient popularity. Most new portable computers have it built in, which reinforces its future as the standard wireless connection to the Internet.

Many consumers are hooking a $100 Wi-Fi base station to their broadband Internet modem. Electronics companies in the Home Working Group will build Wi-Fi into their products so consumers can stream Internet video and music to their televisions and music systems.

Electronics makers are pushing two more short-range wireless technologies, Bluetooth and Ultra Wideband.

Ultra Wideband is a year away from launch and, unlike Bluetooth, can transfer vast amounts of data between devices, which is needed to stream video from a DVD player or transfer pictures from a digital camera to a computer.

The devices have to be a few meters apart, which means it will not compete with Wi-Fi, which covers a 100 meter radius.

Bluetooth is an energy-efficient replacement of wire connections for modest amounts of information. It is used between cell phones and peripherals such as microphones, for hands-free calling in cars and to control industrial equipment, among other connections.


Bluetooth has been around the longest, but problems with interoperability between devices have showed it is not enough to sell millions of Bluetooth-enabled products. Consumers and wholesale buyers such as car makers are frustrated that some microphones fail to work with certain phones. Also, it is hardly intuitive how to pair devices so that they can work together.

Wi-Fi home networks can suffer from similar problems. Hooking one computer to a broadband modem is something many consumers manage, but adding more boxes requires the computer network skills of the technologically savvy.

Coming to the rescue is yet another wireless technology, called Near Field Communications (NFC). It is backed by Sony, Nokia (news - web sites) and Philips, while Visa is keen to use it for secure wireless payment systems.

Holding two devices a few centimeters from each other allows NFC chips to connect and automatically execute all the procedures that consumers find so hard to do, such as pairing Bluetooth devices, initiating payment protocols between a phone and a shop till or adding a new product to a home network. "There are strong signs that the first commercial products will be available in the latter part of this year," said Christophe Duverne, marketing manager for identification products at Philips Semiconductors.

It will take a while before all these technologies work seamlessly together. In any case, the forest of wireless standards needs no new additions.

Said Marino: "We have to stop inventing new technologies, and now innovate with what we have."

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