Ultrawideband: Down, But Far From Out

By Jeff Goldman

April 08, 2009

The personal area network technology has had a rough time lately, but its backers remain optimistic about its future.

It’s been a particularly rough few months for ultrawideband (UWB) technology. First, leading UWB startup WiQuest closed its doors, then Intel shut down its UWB research group and TZero Technologies closed up shop—and then, last month, the WiMedia Alliance announced that it was transferring all current and future specifications to the Bluetooth SIG and the USB Implementers Forum (in the form of Wireless USB), and ceasing operations.

But don’t count UWB out just yet.

WiMedia Alliance president Clint Chaplin says the closure was simply the logical next step for the organization. “WiMedia was never focused at the consumer itself--it was always focused at trying to get into other partner SIGs… and it just felt like it was time to give the technology over to them, to let them proceed with it as they need to,” he says.

And Chaplin says the market for Wireless USB devices is moving forward at a healthy pace. “At CES, there were several demonstrations of endpoint devices, such as hard disks, TVs, camcorders and still picture cameras, that were Wireless USB-enabled,” he says. “So we’re starting to see a complete ecosystem growing up now with Wireless USB.”

In the meantime, Chaplin says, the closure of the Alliance itself is a gradual process. “WiMedia has a date of October 1st, 2009 to wrap things up and disincorporate,” he says. “That’s a default value--that could be changed at any point. The board of directors is still live and constituted and ready to meet… and the Certification Review Board is formally constituted to meet, as well.”

Ending the tug of war

Eric Broockman, CEO of UWB chipset company Alereon, says the Alliance’s decision to cease operations is ultimately about empowering the Bluetooth SIG and the USB Implementers Forum to adjust the tech to meet their particular needs--and that’s been the aim from the beginning: unlike the Wi-Fi Alliance, he says, WiMedia was never intended to become a recognized brand.

Instead, Broockman says, the idea was simply to enable more deployments. “As silicon providers, we would really like the handset guys to ship a lot of stuff, and we would really like the PC guys to ship a lot of stuff,” he says. “And the only way to do that is to let each of them take this basic technology and let it evolve to suit the requirements of their own customers.”

From the beginning, the problem was that each side had different aims: Wireless USB was focused on maximizing speed, while the Bluetooth SIG was more concerned about power consumption. “WiMedia was constantly in this tug of war… we were getting torn apart all the time--so it was just simpler to let each of them evolve the species,” Broockman says.

And the shutdown of companies like WiQuest, Broockman says, is no more than a natural winnowing of the market. “I don’t look at the fact that TZero didn’t make it or the guys at WiQuest didn’t make it… as necessarily a reflection on the technology,” he says. “It’s more the normal process--which has been accelerated further by economic circumstances.”

The knee of the curve

Still, Marty Colombatto, CEO of UWB silicon provider Staccato Communications, admits that WiQuest’s shutdown was enough of a shock to PC manufacturers that it inevitably slowed the adoption of Wireless USB in laptops. “It may take a quarter or two for [PC manufacturers] to work through the development and reestablish new offerings based upon different solutions,” he says.

At the same time, Colombatto says the consumer electronics market is also a key target for Wireless USB. “[CE manufacturers] have an ecosystem of devices that connect to TVs, such as digital still cameras and video cameras and storage--and when a PC user takes their laptop into their living room, they also want to enable the PC user to use the HDTV as their display,” he says.

And that’s a perfect place for UWB--by definition, Colombatto says, Wireless USB occupies a very different space from other wireless technologies like Wi-Fi. “Let’s say you’re streaming a Netflix video over your Wi-Fi network, and you’re using ultrawideband to connect to a TV to view the content: that’s a complementary usage model that really requires both,” he says.

Although 60 GHz promises extremely high data rates, Colombatto says it’ll never offer the low power demands of UWB. “There is a sweet spot for 60 GHz, because it’s going to be replacing HDMI cables--while ultrawideband is the natural radio technology for portable, handheld, cost-sensitive applications like smartphones, personal media players, and laptops,” he says.

And so, Colombatto says, there’s no reason to be concerned for UWB. “It’s still going to be a big market,” he says. “Yes, it took longer to happen, but if you look at the volume growth cycles of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, when they did take off, they took off very, very quickly… I think in 2010 we’re going to start seeing the knee of the curve that’s been eluding us for the last three or four years.”

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. Follow Wi-Fi Planet on Twitter. Join Wi-Fi Planet on Facebook.

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