Unwiring The Planet's Peripherals

By Gerry Blackwell

December 20, 2002

Wi-Fi-enabled business hardware add-ons are opening a new front in the industry's war on wires.

The unwiring of the American office is moving into a new phase. The first phase was wirelessly enabling computers using Wi-Fi -- mostly laptops, later and to a lesser extent desktops.

Now all kinds of devices with 802.11b built in are beginning to appear -- multimedia projectors, printers, video surveillance cameras, PDAs, phones. New after-market Wi-Fi bridge devices will let you add just about any USB- or Ethernet-compliant networkable device to a Wi-Fi WLAN.

Driving the market for Wi-Fi peripherals are chipset manufacturers like Intersil, maker of the widely used PRISM line of Wi-Fi chips. Intersil's silicon products appear in many of the new Wi-Fi peripherals.

"There's a whole bunch of things out there now with Wi-Fi built in," says Intersil vice president of marketing Chris Henningsen. "We still haven't seen this category really explode yet, but we think it will in 2003."

The recently announced Notevision PG-M25X wireless multimedia projector from Sharp Electronics is a prime example. The PG-M25X ($5,295 MSRP) uses an add-on Wi-Fi-to-serial adapter to wireless-enable the projector. It lets any laptop (or desktop) equipped with a Wi-Fi card connect to the projector in ad hoc mode and send presentations from programs like Microsoft PowerPoint.

Other projectors are available from Sony, NEC, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Linksys makes a Wireless Presentation Gateway you hook right up to a projector.

Intersil has been using some projector products internally for a few months, says Henningsen.

"The reason we like them a lot is that we used to get into meeting rooms with 20 people or so, more than one of them slated to give presentations, and you'd end up passing the cable [to the projector] around, knocking over cups of coffee and so on. [Wireless projectors] eliminate all that confusion. You can just leave the projectors in one place in the conference room."

Wireless printers are also beginning to appear, though not, perhaps, as fast as one might expect. Products such as Epson's Stylus C80WN ($450) are targeted at companies that have wireless networks in place and want a networked printer.

But the C80WN is not a native Wi-Fi product. It's actually Epson's 2880 x 720 dpi, 4 color, 20-pages-per-minute C80N product with the addition of an outboard Wi-Fi print server incorporating the Intersil PRISM technology.

Hewelett-Packard also has an outboard Wi-Fi product, the WP110 Wireless Print Server ($300 MSRP), which lets you add any networkable HP (or other) printer to a WLAN. Linksys has the similar WPS11 Instant Wireless Print Server.

Henningsen says Intersil's own IT department is suddenly enthusiastic about WLANs partly because products such as the wireless print servers promise significant cost savings.

"The IT people in our own company were among the last to buy into wireless LANs," he says. "But now they're putting Wi-Fi cards in everyone's computer, even desktops. The reason is that now when they have to move somebody, they can pick up their stuff put it down in a different place and it will work exactly the same."

Intersil figures office moves cost $200 to $700 when they involve reconnecting to and reconfiguring a wired Ethernet network. That cost is significantly reduced when moving wireless gear. The fact that even networked printers are wireless now makes it easier to think of going all wireless.

Wireless printers will also be good for small, growing companies that move office space frequently. Henningsen notes that 97 percent of office space in America is either not wired for Ethernet or the wiring is not accessible. If all your network gear can now be wireless, it eliminates significant wiring costs for companies moving into new spaces.

If sharing printers by networking them is a whole new concept, the availability of Wi-Fi print servers means some wirelessly networked companies may now be able to get by with fewer printers, Henningsen suggests.

Wireless peripherals can also enable completely new applications. Take the D-LinkAir DCS-1000W wireless Internet Camera ($330) from D-Link Systems. It features built-in 802.11 and a built-in Web server so that it can be set up to be directly addressed from anywhere on the Net.

Henningsen suggests that products like the D-Link camera could be used to provide temporary security -- set up the cameras and monitor them in a truck while the special guest is on your premises, then take them down after she leaves.

"They'd also be great for trade show floors," Henningsen says. "There's always a good chance at any trade show that you're going to have a high-end notebook stolen. If you're monitoring using one of these cameras, you'll at least be able to see if it's one of the show floor workers -- or one of your own employees."

Peripheral devices with native Wi-Fi capabilities are still the exception, but USB and Ethernet bridge products can Wi-Fi-enable virtually any networkable device. Linksys, for example, has the WET11 Wireless Ethernet Bridge ($110), a PRISM-powered unit that plugs into any Ethernet-enabled device and adds it to a Wi-Fi WLAN. Similar products are available from D-Link and SMC Networks.

With such briding products, you could include any existing computer, printer, projector or surveillance product on your WLAN. You could even add something like Linksys's EFG80 EtherFast Instant GigaDrive Network Attached Storage (about $500), an 80GB network hard drive unit with two bays that will each take up to 120GB drives for a total capacity of 240GB.

The next big push that will put Wi-Fi into even more devices will come with the emergence next year of multi-mode client cards in various formats including the teensy tiny Secure Digital (SD) card format. Cards combining various flavors of 802.11a, 11b, or 11g-- or Wi-Fi plus Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi plus one or more mobile protocols (1xRTT, GPRS, etc.) -- will make it even easier to Wi-Fi-enable PDAs and smart phones.

A year from now, what isn't wireless won't be worth having.

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