Small Businesses Already Struggling with UWB

By Jeff Goldman

July 27, 2006

In January, Belkin and Gefen announced cable-free USB products. They were inevitably delayed due to Freescale leaving ultrawideband behind -- a move that has hurt others.

In April of this year, Freescale left the UWB Forum, abandoning the ultrawideband (UWB) group that it had helped to create – and not much has been heard from the company regarding UWB since then.

For a number of small businesses, that’s created some significant challenges over the past few months.

Jim Houskeeper is CTO of nVision Industries, which makes helmet-mounted displays and virtual binoculars. All of the company’s products currently use a wired connection to a video source, and Houskeeper says nVision frequently gets requests from customers for a wireless option.

A couple of years ago, nVision got in touch with Freescale, as well as companies like Belkin and Gefen that were promising wireless USB hubs based on Freescale’s silicon, to explore the possibility of using Freescale’s UWB tech to unwire nVision’s products.

Houskeeper says the companies kept saying solutions would be available in a matter of months.

But then the WiMedia Alliance began working with Ecma International to establish a global standard based on WiMedia’s version of UWB – after which all parties involved agreed to dissolve the IEEE’s UWB standards group. Then Freescale left the UWB Forum, after which they pushed back the anticipated arrival of their UWB silicon to 2007 at the earliest, if ever.

For nVision, that delay has hit hard – the company had planned its schedule around a conservative expectation that it would have a wireless solution by the end of the year. “We’re a relatively small company, and this puts us in an even more difficult position in that we’re not talking about quantities of 10,000 or 100,000 units,” Houskeeper says. “As a small guy, we’re pretty low on the food chain.”

The Wrong Horse

ABI Research analyst Stuart Carlaw says Freescale seems to have moved on from UWB. “They’ve lost their key advantage, which was time to market,” he says. “If they could have had the silicon out there and products on the market with a good six-month lead on WiMedia, they would have had a good chance of making a success out of it. Unfortunately, the WiMedia group have caught up, and now they’re actively espousing their product wins – so my feeling is that we’re not going to see a great deal from Freescale.”

Belkin and Gefen, Carlaw says, simply bet on the wrong horse. “Freescale’s Cable-Free USB was a proprietary technology in the fact that it didn’t have any standards-body backing – and Wireless USB from the WiMedia Alliance has backing from the USB-IF,” he says. “So the guys like Belkin and Gefen that were making these products that they announced at CES, they were actively having to consider, shortly after that, a standards body that was ratifying Wireless USB as a certified product.”

Belkin spokesperson Melody Chalaban confirms that her company chose Freescale because of their apparent time-to-market advantage.

“At the time when the technology was first introduced, Freescale was the UWB leader, and other chipset manufacturers’ product roadmaps were still in development,” Chalaban says. “We chose the Freescale initially because they were further along in the technology development process than their competitors.”

Chalaban acknowledges that Freescale’s change of plans affected her company’s schedule, pushing back Belkin’s anticipated launch date from July to September – at which point, she says, Belkin will use “another chipset option that would support Certified Wireless USB. The chipset we ended up choosing (which is not public information yet) is a WiMedia solution that offers better overall performance.”

A Gefen spokesperson offered essentially the same response, saying that “Gefen is still making the product; in fact, it’s in its final stages, but is using different internal components than the Freescale.”

Freescale had no comment by the time this story was posted.

Waiting to Materialize

Looking ahead, Carlaw says the UWB market as a whole isn’t necessarily hurt – just the unfortunate companies that chose to follow Freescale’s path. There are more than enough companies that chose to work with WiMedia, he says, to pick up the slack.

InVision anticipates two waves of UWB silicon implementation – the first from prominent WiMedia startups WiQuest, Wisair, Alereon and Staccato, and the second wave from bigger players that will enter once they get a better sense of what’s happening in the market.

Carlaw has already spoken with Wisair about their solution – but he’s learned the hard way not to get his hopes up.

“They’ve said in about a month or so they’re going to have an announcement with some major players about Wireless USB, using their chipset,” Carlaw says. “But again, we keep on hearing all these wonderful stories, we hear about things being demonstrated at trade shows and so forth, and we get excited about it – yet it doesn’t really seem to materialize.”

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