UWB Group Hands off to Wireless USB, Bluetooth

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The WiMedia Alliance, the industry group organized to push UWB (ultrawideband) technology, will disband after it finishes transferring its technology to two other personal-area network organizations.

UWB is designed as a personal-area network for high-speed transfers of data, especially multimedia content, among devices at close range. It has a signaling rate of 480Mb per second (Mbps), with real-world throughput ranging from 50Mbps to 300Mbps, according to the WiMedia Alliance. WiMedia was formed in 2002 to promote adoption of the technology and ensure interoperability among products that use it.

The technology can reduce the clutter of cables and allow fast, easy transfers of large multimedia files among PCs, consumer electronics such as TVs, and handheld devices, according to WiMedia President Stephen Wood.

Although UWB became the foundation of Wireless USB and the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) is still studying the technology as the basis of a future specification, it hasn't taken the home or enterprise worlds by storm. The Wireless USB Implementers Forum, which is affiliated with the sponsors of wired USB, lists 114 products or sets of products with Wireless USB, including notebooks from Lenovo and Fujitsu. By comparison, Wi-Fi is available in almost all laptops and an increasing percentage of smartphones.

Wireless USB is still in its infancy as a commercial product, Wood said.

WiMedia has reached agreements to transfer technology to both the Wireless USB Implementers Forum and the Bluetooth SIG, and it will cease operations after it completes those transfers, Wood said.

Now that those groups have adopted the system to use with their specifications, WiMedia is no longer necessary, Wood said. Having a single organization to finalize the UWB specification helped to ensure one standard that both Wireless USB and Bluetooth could use, preventing interference or conflicts, according to Wood. The group also achieved more widespread approval for the use of UWB, which is now legal at various frequencies in U.S., Europe, Japan and South Korea.

But industry analysts said UWB has never gained much traction, for a variety of reasons.

"If UWB were successful, the WiMedia Alliance wouldn't be shutting its doors," said In-Stat analyst Brian O'Rourke.

The technology is hobbled by both relatively high price and the lack of urgent uses, O'Rourke said. Because UWB chips are not shipping in the same kinds of volumes as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, they remain more expensive and there is a premium for products that include UWB. A typical use might involve networking a printer to a PC from across a home office, he said. But the number of people who need to do that is relatively small, and the extra cost of a Wireless USB printer or an add-on network limits the appeal, O'Rourke said.

UWB chips cost between US$6 and $7 and need to fall about another $1.50 before they start selling in higher volumes, said WiMedia's Wood.

Clouds have been gathering on the UWB horizon for some time. The Bluetooth SIG turned to IEEE 802.11 as the basis of its Bluetooth 3.0 standard, coming in April. Texas Instruments pulled out of WiMedia last year, and Intel has stopped developing its own UWB silicon. Also last year, Sony introduced another short-range, low-power technology called TransferJet, which has been adopted by several consumer electronics companies.

Technology is not the problem with UWB, which is much faster than Wi-Fi and consumes much less power, In-Stat's O'Rourke said. But while high-bandwidth uses such as grabbing a TV show off a digital video recorder for viewing on the road are interesting, they won't sell many products, O'Rourke said.

"A lot of their scenarios are really future-based. They're not in the here and now," he said.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney was more blunt.

"Great that WiMedia Alliance has given up," Dulaney wrote in an e-mail interview. "They could have tried again and again to make this work, taking a lot of unsuspecting users' money in the process. I wish more vendors would call it quits when appropriate."

For one common use case, transfers between PCs and cell phones, Wi-Fi will take up the slack, he said.

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