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Wi-Fi not the only game in town

Over the next five years, spending on Wi-Fi services and equipment is expected to reach $163 billion worldwide. But it's far from the only wireless technology to watch.

Over the next five years, spending on Wi-Fi services and equipment is expected to reach $163 billion worldwide. Most of this growth will come from the consumer side, as home users discover the joys of computing unplugged. But a significant chunk of this growth will also be generated by business sales, especially in places like Europe where Wi-Fi installations are happening at a much faster rate than here in the U.S. and North America.

Wi-Fi is not the only wireless game in town, though, a fact that recently struck home in our offices during a phone call with one of our clients. We were constantly interrupted by this steady and grating electronic buzz that cut rudely into the conversation we were having on our cordless phone. After several minutes of shifting our position and swapping channels on the phone (all to no avail...) we discovered that the buzz was created by the Bluetooth transmitter embedded in our Palm Tungsten T3 unit, which we are reviewing for a future column. The PDA was dutifully searching for a fellow Bluetooth signal, and inadvertently disrupting our 2.4 GHz phone in the process.

When the phone call ended, we did a quick inventory and could list at least four or five wireless networks that were routinely pinging throughout our offices -- including 802.11b and g WLANs, two cellular services (one used just for data access), a handful of Bluetooth transmitters and receivers, occasionally a family radio service (FRS) system used as a local intercom. No wonder we go home each day with a buzzing in our ears and fond memories of the good old days of infrared (IrDA) line-of-sight connections.

The fact is we are just at the very early stages of what will quickly evolve to become a world of multiple network saturation. Just as we drive our automobiles on different types of roadways to travel from Point A to Point B (consisting of driveways, roads, by-ways, highways, expressways and so on), we will wirelessly and effortlessly hop from one network to another to send messages and access information.

At the recent COMDEX confab in Las Vegas, Shoreline Research had the privilege of leading a session that explored the potential and possibilities of various wireless personal area networks (commonly referred to as PANs). Just like Peter Pan in the children's classic, these are networking technologies that prefer not to grow up to become larger and more powerful WLANs and WANs. Included among these are:

  • Ultra Wide Band (UWB) networks. These are systems based on a technology that transmits data in short pulses, spread out across a wide spectrum and over multiple channels. Although limited in range, UWB is perfect for high-bandwidth applications, like multimedia entertainment systems in the home or medical imaging systems in hospitals. UWB can also be used in automotive collision detection systems, has been used by law enforcement agencies to actually peer through walls and detect people and objects on the other side. Construction companies also use I as a ground-penetrating radar to detect objects before digging or drilling.

    While most people may not be aware of UWB right now, that situation is expected to change by this time next year when a range of UWB products are expected to make their debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2005, say officials from such UWB leaders as Motorola, Inc., Alereon, Inc. and Staccato Communications. All of these companies were represented on the COMDEX panel and agreed that while UWB won't replace 802.11 it will provide a more flexible and robust limited-area wireless environment (30 feet versus 300 feet or more).

  • ZigBee networks. This is a technology that is designed to be a standards-based wireless platform for remote monitoring, control and sensing applications. Since ZigBee has very low power requirements (as compared to 802.11 and certainly UWB), it can easily be embedded into products and then operated for years on standard batteries. ZigBee networks do not usually constantly transmit, so this sporadic operation translates into an extended battery life.

    Since ZigBee is designed to operate in less-than-perfect environments, it offers a very high degree of reliability and is perfect for home control, building automation and industrial automation applications. Motorola, Inc, and others are also looking at ZigBee for "smart appliance" applications, embedding the technology into such everyday items as refrigerators and washing machines. If something goes bump in the night, then these appliances can signal a central control system in the home that there is a problem, and a vendor can be alerted that repairs are necessary.

  • Magnetic and "near field" communications. We had to lobby hard to get this segment represented on the COMDEX PAN panel, since the technology pales in terms of the coverage given to 802.11, Bluetooth and other limited-communications alternatives. Also, magnetic induction technology has been bumping around for decades, and is not as "sexy" as the other entries in the PAN field. But, a small Massachusetts company called Aura Communications has successfully molded the concept into an actual product called LibertyLink, which is a wireless headset that relies on a "bubble" of magnetic radiation to transmit audio signals -- from a personal player or cell phone, for example.

    The obvious benefits to this technology are its low-power characteristics, as well as its inherent ability to avoid rapidly crowding conventional RF channels, such as the 2.4GHz spectrum populated by 802.11 and Bluetooth devices. The technology is also naturally secure, since nothing is transmitted beyond this limited and personal magnetic bubble. The LibertyLink headset was announced earlier this year at the DEMO conference, and has already attracted the attention of investors and developers who are looking to capitalize on such things as "hands-free" laws regarding driving and cell phone usage. Also, magnetic induction may be an increasingly viable alternative as the "chatter" increases over conventional wireless networks and collisions become a more vexing problem.

  • Bluetooth Technology. What can we say about Bluetooth that has not already been said, discussed and dissected? The technology endured a ash of bad press and misunderstanding when it first came out of the gate years ago, and suffered even more slings and arrows when major vendors like Toshiba rushed products out into the market, even though the ink on the technical specifications had yet to dry. Now, there are Bluetooth phones, handheld computers, PDAs, headsets, printers and other devices. It is an accepted standard for short-range cable and cord elimination.

    The big question, though, is if the technology will be necessary as 802.11 systems improve and other low-range and lower-power technologies come into the picture. Will Bluetooth be the IrDA of tomorrow? We have our own thoughts on that, but would like to hear from you! Tell us what you think by dropping us a line at

    Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

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