Smart Phones May Go Wi-Fi

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Chip design company SyChip is testing software for its secure digital I/O (SDIO) wireless LAN card so it can be used to add Wi-Fi capability to smart phones.

With the card and the software, smart phones will be able to use a WLAN to transmit data and double as a cordless Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone when linked to a corporate IP telephony service, says Navi Miglani, SyChip's director of marketing.

Wi-Fi capability could be a welcome addition for smart phone users as it offers higher transmission speeds than current phone networks. Also, VoIP users will need only one handset to use as both a mobile phone on the road and in the office.

SyChip's SDIO 802.11b WLAN card is currently sold as a personal digital assistant accessory by SanDisk, ViewSonic, and Socket Communications. It retails for about $130. However, for smart phone use SyChip had to develop new driver software.

"Smart phones have a different user interface, with buttons instead of a touch screen. We had to develop software for that," Miglani says.

Early Implementations

Miglani showed a Windows Mobile-based Samsung Electronics i600 device with the SDIO card and a beta version of the driver software during a session at the Wi-Fi Planet Conference and Expo in San Jose this week. A final version is due out in the first quarter of 2004, along with software for Palm OS-based smart phones, he said.

SyChip is also developing software to make its SDIO cards work with smart phones based on Symbian's namesake operating system. Miglani could not say when his company will deliver drivers for that operating system.

Smart phone users will have to manually install the drivers on their devices to use WLAN. This will most likely be done through synchronization with a PC, Miglani says. SyChip is working with Microsoft, hoping to have its drivers included in future versions of the Windows Mobile software for smart phones.

Jason Gordon, product manager in Microsoft's Mobile Devices Division, says he cannot make any promises.

"While we have nothing to announce today, one of Microsoft's top priorities is to continue to empower the Windows Mobile software and hardware developer community with both the technical tools and business support to easily develop and market solutions that allow people to connect to people and information in new ways," Gordon says in a statement.

Next: Built-In Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi capability is valuable, but users will want it to be built into products and not provided as an expansion card, says Michael Gartenberg, a research director at Jupiter Research.

"Many organizations will be looking for devices that have Wi-Fi functionality built in, rather than looking at the aftermarket for expansion cards. For one thing, the cards tend to protrude on some of the devices, that will certainly hamper usability. Battery life is a second issue. If I am now powering an SDIO Wi-Fi card, that can severely restrict battery life," Gartenberg says.

On the Samsung device, SyChip's Miglani showed the SDIO card did jut out from the side of the phone.

Phones with built-in Wi-Fi are on the horizon. In Japan, for example, NTT DoCoMo and NEC have developed a handset that supports both 3G cellular telephony and WLAN. The device is due out around April.

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