We're of two minds about Certified Wireless USB (CWUSB). We've been following ultra wideband (UWB) wireless technology for three and a half years. It has taken much longer to get to market than its advocates predicted, and it isn't there yet.
But we still think CWUSB will be the first mass-market application of UWB and is very likely to have a huge impact on the way people use PCs and portable devices. And it's the first step in realizing the full potential for UWB.
CWUSB Chips and Products At CES
At CES, we met with many UWB companies, saw some real products based on CWUSB, and saw prototypes of more advanced products. The most impressive was a wireless docking station for notebook PCs.
USB Implementors Forum
We met first with Jeff Ravencraft, Chairman/President of the USB Implementors Forum (USB-IF), to get an update on CWUSB. Jeff said that although final CWUSB certification was proceeding more slowly than expected, many chips had passed the WiMedia physical layer (PHY) tests and were ready to ship, and several major companies were starting to design products around them. He suggested that we look at product demonstrations from Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and NEC as well as from the chip makers. He mentioned the Kodak EasyShare V610 digital camera as an example of a device that would be a great match with CWUSB, since it already has a USB 2.0 interface and Bluetooth radio.
Alereon: Focus on the PHY
In a telephone interview that we reported on last year, Alereon's CEO told us that Alereon has chosen to focus on the WiMedia UWB physical layer, believing that the MAC and higher layers will be integrated into other digital components. For complete CWUSB reference designs, Alereon works together with companies like NEC and Intel that build devices with the CWUSB MAC layer and full USB support. Alereon is focused on the speed and battery efficiency of hand-helds, not on streaming media. Their goal is to transfer more Mbits of information in less time for the same battery usage.
At Alereon's CES suite, Mike Krell showed us several demonstrations. Perhaps the best sign of things to come was a simple CWUSB 4-port "Device Wire Adapter" hub, shown in the picture, based on a reference design using chips from Alereon and NEC. CWUSB eliminates the USB cable connecting the USB hub to the PC, permitting the hub to be across the room or even through a wall in another room.
We also saw an Alereon reference design for the other end of the USB cable: a wireless "Host Wire Adapter" or "dongle" which turns any USB 2.0 port into a CWUSB host. This is based on chips from Alereon and Intel.
As we looked at other CWUSB demonstrations on the show floor, we saw lots of hubs and dongles that appeared to be based on these Alereon reference designs.
Mike said we'd start seeing CWUSB dongles and hubs in the second quarter of this year, and should see laptop PCs with CWUWB built in later in the year. Then we'd see CWUSB built into multi-function printer/fax/scanners and hard drives. He said we might see some "bleeding edge handhelds" by the end of this year, but 2008 will be the "ramp year" for devices like MP3 players and cameras.
Artimi: Focus on Handhelds
In the WiMedia area, we stopped at the Artimi booth to say "Hi" to Colin Macnab, Artimi's CEO. Colin told us that Artimi is focused on handheld devices such as digital cameras that require low power and low cost.
Colin showed Dave a working prototype of a digital camera with Artimi's embedded CWUSB radio. One of Artimi's people took a picture of Dave with Colin, transferred it with UWB to a notebook PC, and printed it out.
Staccato Communications: "Cost, Cost, Cost..."
At Staccato's suite, we met with Mark Bowles, Founder and VP, Business Development and Corporate Marketing. We interviewed Mark last year, and looked forward to hearing his current views on the evolution of UWB.
Staccato promotes its Ripcord family as having the smallest form factor for a complete System-in-Package (SiP) solution, so we asked Mark how important size would be in differentiating Staccato from its rival chip makers. He said his view of differentiating chip makers was "cost, cost, cost, size, and power consumption".
Notebook PCs are expected to be the first major market for CWUSB, and we asked Mark how WUSB will get into them. He said "It's easy to put dongles on any PC. If you order a Dell with WUSB, they will ship you a dongle."
The next step is to embed WUSB into the PC. Many chip makers have reference designs for PCI Express Minicards, which fit inside a notebook PC, often under the keyboard. Since all the notebook PCs we've looked at have only one minicard slot, and that's already occupied by a Wi-Fi adapter, we asked Mark how PC makers would find the space for the CWUSB minicard. He said PC makers were redesigning the motherboard to provide three minicard slots: "wireless LAN, PAN and MAN". One slot will be used for the current flavor of Wi-Fi (soon to be 802.11n); one for personal networks such as UWB or Bluetooth; and one for 3G cellular networks or WiMAX. Staccato has several minicard reference designs, including the half-size one shown in the picture. We asked Mark whether WUSB and Bluetooth would share the same minicard; he said Staccato has a reference design for a combination Bluetooth/CWUSB minicard, but many notebook PCs already have Bluetooth on the motherboard.
When asked about the timeframe for real CWUSB products, Mark said "We should see some products in all categories during 2007: notebook PCs, higher-end printers and MFCs, etc. These will be single products, with low volumes, testing the market. They'll still have low single-digit penetration by the end of 2007. But remember that USB is already embedded in about 3 billion devices, and low single digits could be a lot of units."
Being more specific, Mark said he expected to see "five brands" of laptop PCs with CWUSB this year, and lots of dongles and hubs. We'll also see some external hard drives and printers. Smaller devices like digital still cameras and MP3 players will come next. "2008 is the ramp-up year. There are already chip sets and many form factors of packages from UWB chip makers."
WiQuest Communications: High Quality Digital Video
At their booth on the CES show floor, Toshiba impressed everyone with its demonstration of the wireless docking station designed to go with its latest flagship portable, the Portege R400 Tablet PC. When returning home from a trip, you just bring the R400 within a few meters of the docking station (shown at the left in the picture) and everything--keyboard, mouse, display, printer, local area network--is connected automatically.
While Sandy was looking at the R400, Dave was talking to Wayne Daniel, Director, Technical Marketing at WiQuest Communications, the fabless semiconductor company whose chips are used in the R400 and its docking station. Wayne told us that WiQuest has differentiated itself from other WiMedia chip companies by focusing on digital video applications. The WiDV™ (Wireless Digital Video) technology in WiQuest's WQST100/101 chipset (shown in the picture) is designed "to deliver wireless transmission of high quality digital video for PC and HDTV applications" and claims to achieve "1 Gbps extended data rate" required for video connections such as those between the PC and its monitor. Other WiMedia radios top out at 480 Mbps; WiQuest doesn't think that's fast enough to support a wireless connection between the PC and the display.
Wayne showed us WiQuest's reference designs for the key components used in wireless docking: the PCI minicard and the Wireless Docking station. The minicard plugs into a notebook PC; the docking station (shown in the picture) includes support for DVI or VGA monitors, audio in/out, Ethernet, and 4 wired USB ports.
A Long Gestation Period
There were three contending approaches when we first started following high-speed UWB. The IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group was created to resolve the differences, but was unable to get the contending players to agree. In 2006, 802.15.3a disbanded without agreeing on a standard, leaving each approach to go its own way in the market.
At a session on new wireless networking technologies moderated by Dave at CES two years ago, Jeff Ravencraft, Technology Strategist at Intel and Chairman of the Wireless USB Promoter Group, discussed the emerging UWB technology and its application to Wireless USB. Jeff said that USB-IF had selected the MBOA/WiMedia version of UWB as the basis for Wireless USB, and predicted "end-user products at end of 2005". At the same show, we saw and wrote about one of the other versions of UWB that seemed to be further along toward products.
A year ago at CES, we saw early versions of WiMedia UWB chips and again saw other UWB products that appeared to be further along. By May of last year, we wrote an extensive article on Wireless USB and reported that people had told us that we would see certified products "perhaps as early as this summer".
Here we are in February 2007. No UWB products of any type have sold in any quantity, and no Certified Wireless USB products have passed the USB-IF certification tests. We are now told to expect certified products in the second quarter of 2007.
But we believe that Certified Wireless USB is worth waiting for, since it addresses a real need. Virtually every device now connected with a USB cable will probably connect with UWB in a few years, doing away with the cluster of cables around every PC and every portable device such as digital cameras and cellphones. We think CWUSB is a "no brainer", since it doesn't require customers to change any habits--except remembering to carry USB cables with them when they're on the road.
And CWUSB is just the start for UWB. As we reported in our earlier articles, the next generation of Bluetooth and a version of Ethernet will run on the same WiMedia radio as CWUSB. Over the next few years, we'll buy a lot fewer cables.