USB Ready To Ride the Wireless Wave

The move to wireless technology is evident just about everywhere today. Users now carry laptops from meeting to meeting, executives pull out their cell phones to make quick calls while on the road, and one can even access the Internet at a local coffee shop. While there has been a lot of progress in inter-computer wireless communications, that has not been the case for intra-computer communications.

But by the end of the year, that is expected change as vendors deliver a slew of items, such as keyboards, mice, printer connections, set top boxes, video game consoles, and televisions that support wireless Universal Serial Bus (USB) links. “There is significant interest among both computer and consumer electronic vendors to move from wired to wireless peripheral connections,” noted Brian O’Rourke, a senior analyst at market research firm In-Stat/MDR Inc.

Unlike many standard initiatives, the USB specification has garnered widespread support. In-Stat/MDR expects the number of USB-enabled devices to increase from 705.7 million worldwide in 2004 to 2.1 billion in 2009. Not only is the interface being used on computers, but as users deploy home entertainment networks, it is increasingly being integrated into consumer products, like CD players and televisions.

Untangling the Spider’s Web

While USB has enabled users to connect a variety of items to computers through a standard interface, the specification has not offered much help for managing the spider’s web of wires that come out of the backs of computers. “Wireless USB promises to eliminate much of the clutter that comes from connecting peripherals to a computer and that will make installation and maintenance easier,” said Phil Solis, a senior analyst with market research firm ABI Research Inc.

Users who want to get rid of those lines have had few options. Vendors, such as Belkin Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Logitech International, and Nokia Inc., offer wireless keyboards and mice. Prices for these products range from US$40 to $200, so use has been limited to individuals who want to supplement the input options available with their handheld systems or those who work in areas where running wired USB connections is difficult or impossible.

Vendors have used a few different techniques to connect devices wirelessly. The Bluetooth specification has been one option, products also rely on infrared technology, the frequency bands used for wireless LANs has been another way to move information, and cellular communications frequency bands have been an option.

The hodgepodge of approaches is inefficient. “Vendors would like to drive down the cost of wireless peripheral communications by moving to a standard way of connecting them,” ABI Research’s Solis told TechNewsWorld.

Let’s Get Together

To address that issue, vendors formed the Wireless USB Promoter Group, an ad hoc consortium whose goal is to develop a specification for wireless USB connections, in February 2004. Members include many of the leading silicon suppliers: Agere Systems, Inc.; Alereon Inc.; HP; Intel, Inc.; NEC Electronics Corp., Philips Semiconductors, which is part of Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.; Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.; Staccato Communications Inc., Texas Instruments Inc.; and Wisair.

Rather than develop a new communication specification from scratch, the group decided to piggyback on work being done to boost the speed of home networks. Network vendors had been working on the Ultra Wideband standard, which supports transmission speeds up to 480M bps at distances of about 30 feet, and it is the foundation for wireless USB.

As the Wireless USB Promoter Group began to tweak that standard so it could support peripheral transmissions, it faced a few design decisions. Historically, USB links ran over wired lines, so there was little to no possibility of intrusion. With the new wireless option, that was no longer the case. In addition, wireless USB computers were being designed to alert local devices of their presence and ask if they want to make a connection, for instance a user may receive an alert asking if he or she wants to upload pictures from a digital camera to a computer. While beneficial, this broadcast feature will also notify hackers that a wireless USB is in the area, and they may use it to break into a user’s network.

Guarding Against Identity Theft

To ensure that a user is who he or she claims to be, wireless USB features a series of verification steps between a computer and a peripheral. After the two acknowledge one another’s presence, they will request and check for unique identifiers, such as a public key. Once the two are satisfied that they are communicating with authorized devices, they will establish a private encrypted connection. The standard relies on 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard protocol to ensure communications between a computer and another device remain secure.

Vendors have been working to transform their plans into products. In September of last year, a handful of vendors, including Intel, NEC Electronics, Texas Instruments, and Wisair, connected a variety of wireless USB devices to computers via a wireless network. In November, the Wireless USB Promoter Group unveiled a draft version of its standard. The standard is expected to be finalized during the summer and the first wave of wireless devices should be available near the end of this year.

The first products are expected to be dongles used with laptop devices. “Initially, the vendors that will benefit most from wireless USB will be notebook computer suppliers,” In-Stat/MDR’s O’Rourke told TechNewsWorld. After that, suppliers are expected to deliver keyboards and mice, then storage systems, and consumer devices as the last wave of wireless USB products.

End user interest in the wireless standard is expected to start slowly because vendors will price the devices high in order to recoup part of their investment. Momentum is expected to grow once vendors start to bundle wireless USB connections with desktop computers.

“Hardware vendors are in a commodity market and are always searching for ways to differentiate their wares,” said ABI Research’s Solis. “Since some users will find wireless connections an attractive option to wired connections, one or two vendors will use it to gain market share. As soon as that happens, all of their competitors will be forced to follow suit.”

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