A cable-free version of USB took a big step forward on Tuesday with the completion of the Wireless USB 1.0 specification, but there is still some work to be done and questions remain about its prospects for widespread adoption.
The specification was created by the Wireless USB Promoter Group, a league of seven vendors that includes the heavyweights of the PC universe: Intel and Microsoft. The group has now handed over management of the standard to the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the governing body for all USB specifications.
Testing for compliance and interoperability should begin by the end of this quarter in a lab being set up at Intel. The group is aiming for the plug-and-play simplicity of the current wired USB and will certify all products for interoperability before it allows a Wireless USB logo on the packaging.
However, the promoter group is still working out a procedure for introducing two Wireless USB devices for the first time, called "association". Testing for that element of the technology should begin in the third quarter, and the first fully certified products should hit the market late this year, he said.
Wireless USB is intended as a high-speed cable replacement for connections between PCs and electronics devices, or from one device to another. It is based on UWB (ultrawideband), a high-speed, short-range technology that allows Wireless USB to match the speed of wired USB 2.0, achieving 480Mbps (megabits per second) at 3m.
However, standardisation of UWB in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is stalled, with two opposing camps meanwhile going forward with incompatible approaches. Wireless USB is based on technology backed by one of those parties, the WiMedia Alliance, of which Intel is a key member. In addition, UWB has not been approved for use by most regulatory bodies outside the US because of concerns over possible interference with other wireless technologies.
Those factors cloud Wireless USB's prospects for reaching the economies of scale that will bring down costs, according to ABI Research analyst Dan Benjamin. Meanwhile, Bluetooth has gained some footing as a wireless cable replacement over the past several years and may get its own speed boost using UWB, and there is a wireless form of the IEEE 1394 interconnect standard in development, Benjamin said.
Jeff Ravencraft, chairman and president of the Wireless USB Promoter Group, stands by Wireless USB's embrace of WiMedia.
"There doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel on the deadlock in the IEEE," Ravencraft said. "At some point you have to make a decision and go with it. We've done that," he added.
As for reaching low costs through economies of scale, Ravencraft is confident the US is big enough to create a mass market on its own and success there will lead to acceptance elsewhere.
"When the rest of the world sees the productivity, the revenue streams and the employment numbers, they're going to say, 'Hey, why aren't we doing that, again?'" Ravencraft said.
Wireless USB does have backing from big names. In addition to Intel and Microsoft, the Wireless USB Promoter Group includes HP, Agere Systems, NEC, Philips’ semiconductor division and Samsung.
There is a real demand for a high-speed cable replacement technology for some uses, ABI's Benjamin said. For example, the best way to keep a handheld digital camcorder connected to a PC would be wirelessly, without a cable to get in the way, he pointed out. But streaming the video signal would take a lot of bandwidth.
"We don't really have a way to do wireless communication at this level of speed," he said.