In the past two years, wireless technology has gone from esoteric to as mainstream as the apple tart available at Starbucks (SBUX), which also happens to serve up a Wi-Fi high-speed wireless network at thousands of its retail outlets.
The Wi-Fi networks for caffeine consumers at Starbucks represents just a fraction of the available hot spots in North America. This technology allows for high-speed wireless Internet access -- often for free -- at about 17,800 locations, according to consultancy Insight Research. Wi-Fi is so commonplace these days that most laptop computers shipped this year will have it built in. But that's just the beginning.
A dizzying array of new wireless technologies now promise to make today's Wi-Fi networks seem like poky dial-up connections by comparison. Some of these new wireless technologies are out, while others will hit the market later this year and in 2006. Together they'll extend the reach of wireless networks, not just geographically but into new uses in the home and office (see table below).
MULTIPLE ALTERNATIVES. As with most new technical standards, the experience won't be painless for the pioneers. This new crop of wireless technologies won't be as simple as Wi-Fi for consumers to figure out. Several industry standards-setting bodies have yet to agree on specs. So for now, users will face multiple alternatives for connecting over distances of many miles, among them cellular and a new technology called WiMax that chip giant Intel (INTC) is pushing.
Then there are the wireless networks that hope to cover distances closer to home -- from inches to several hundred feet. No fewer than six different technologies will be trying to unseat current champ Bluetooth to become the wireless pipeline for enabling remote controls, TV-to-digital-video-recorder interaction, and home-security products.
Throw in scores of startups and established companies -- in many cases backing rival wireless technologies -- and the untethered world is suddenly looking like a huge ball of tangled tech.
SOUPED UP NETWORKS. And don't count on newer wireless technologies catching on as fast as Wi-Fi. Blame that on the success of today's Wi-Fi networks. They're simple to install and use, and they have already established a loyal customer base. "Because Wi-Fi was so popular, it takes away a lot of the demand for other technologies," says Allen Nogee, an analyst with consultancy In-Stat.
Moreover, Wi-Fi is on track to get souped up next year, with its speed expected to jump 10 times. Indeed, a new flavor, prosaically called 802.11n, will become available in PC cards and access points next year. It's supported by heavyweights like Texas Instruments (TXN), Agere (AGR), Intel (which backs most new wireless technologies, hoping at least some of its bets will pay off), and startups including Airgo. 802.11n is Wi-Fi on steroids, promising to eliminate today's problem of dead spots and enable nifty applications like streaming high-definition video between devices within the home.
Even though a new technology called Ultra Wideband (UWB), expected to come out in 2006, will offer higher data speeds, the 802.11n flavor of Wi-Fi will be able to run existing applications. That makes it easier for current Wi-Fi users to move to 802.11n than to switch to the newer UWB technology. While UWB will be able to stream video from a TiVo (TIVO) digital video recorder to a TV within the home, the new Wi-Fi standard will be able to as well.
A HINTERLAND HIT? Another Wi-Fi rival: Cellular networks using new radio technology called MIMO (multiple input multiple output). Craig Mathias, founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group, calls it "the most important new radio technology." Basically, MIMO uses radio waves' natural propensity to reflect off objects and the ground to send several signals -- and streams of data -- at the same time.
The first ultrafast MIMO cell networks could pop up as early as next year and would let consumers stream superhigh-quality video broadcasts over the cell network. Today's video quality via cell can be iffy. "[With MIMO], consumers can do everything they could do on a wire," says Greg Raleigh, CEO of chipmaker Airgo, who is credited with inventing MIMO. "Businesses can think about eliminating the Ethernet [a common way to wire a computer network]." That would allow cell networks to offer high-speed coverage over neighborhoods to compete head-to-head against new technologies like WiMax, which is also backed by cell-phone maker Nokia (NOK), and telco Sprint (FON).
Still, WiMax, which has a range of 30 miles, has its advantages: It might be more suitable for handling data than existing cellular technologies. Thus, WiMax could be a hit in applications ranging from rural broadband services to cinema. Earlier this year, Intel used this high-bandwidth technology to beam a new movie from director David LaChapelle to the Sundance Film Festival's screen. Potentially, WiMax could replace today's practice of delivering film reels to movie theaters.
LEISURELY LOBSTERING. The technology also could prove a boon in developing countries and rural areas, where wired broadband services like digital subscriber lines (DSL) aren't available, says Mark Kaish, a vice-president at telco BellSouth (BLS), which has been testing WiMax-like gear for several years. It will soon begin a trial of WiMax networks for phone calls on a college campus.
Other new wireless technologies could be better suited than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for short-range applications. Take the experience of Ethernet creator Bob Metcalfe. His venture-capital firm, Polaris Venture Partners, invested in chipmaker Ember, which uses so-called ZigBee technology. Metcalfe uses Ember chips in a special control device to remotely steer his lobster boat while sunning on the deck. ZigBee is a short-range technology supported by chipmakers Freescale (FSL) and Analog Devices (ADI) that uses so little power, it won't drain the battery for years -- an important consideration when you're out on the ocean.
For ZigBee and other short-distance wireless technologies, the sweet spot in the market is at home, however. ZigBee-based controls can operate a home theater or turn off the lights in the whole house at a preset bedtime, says Will West, CEO of ZigBee device maker Control4, which started shipping products in April. While WI-Fi could, potentially enable the same applications, its use would it would sap power, requiring frequent battery changes.
POLYGLOT CHIPS. ZigBee also can pass utility-meter readings from individual houses to one central location within a neighborhood or help warehouse security sensors alert guards of a trespasser via a handheld device or mobile phone. In December, manufacturer Pantech & Curitel unveiled the world's first ZigBee-enabled cell phone that will, for now, be available only in Korea.
What could help all these technologies succeed are efforts by companies like Intel and Freescale to incorporate three or more different wireless technologies onto a single chip by 2007 or 2008. Today, each technology requires its own set of components. "We can't just keep adding radios to notebooks and PDAs [personal digital assistants]," explains Alan Sicher, a senior marketing manager at computer maker Dell (DELL). So for now, Dell is focused on established technologies like Wi-Fi and waiting for a shakeout among new entrants before incorporating more technologies into its gear.
Many device makers and consumers, though, could be forced to place their bets a lot sooner. That could prove dangerous for all parties concerned. If, say, UWB takes off, a consumer who bought a phone or a TV using competing technology ZigBee will be left out.
For now, however, entrepreneurs and established companies pushing new wireless technologies and devices believe the market is too hot for a cold wave.
A Sampling of New Wireless Technologies
Stream high-definition video from one room of the house to another. Although the standard is not yet complete, it will cover distances greater than Wi-Fi's 300-foot range
Intel, Agere, Atheros, Texas Instruments, Airgo
Offers access speed of more than 75 megabits per second (the fastest DSL offers 32 megabits per second) over a 30-mile range
Intel, Nokia, Cisco, Sprint
Late 2005/early 2006
Ultra Wideband (UWB)**
Superfast connectivity over short distances -- under 32 feet -- much faster than existing Bluetooth technology, which covers about the same distance
Freescale, Intel, Hewlett-Packard
Covers distances of up to 210 feet, but is slow -- a poky 250 kilobits per second. The big benefit: It uses very little power
Freescale, Honeywell, Samsung, Cisco, Epson
2006 (already out in products such as light switches and remote controls)
*Just a sampling of players. Dozens of companies are involved into shaping these technologies
**There are two types of UWB that different companies want to implement right now. Analysts believe that they'll either come to an agreement on one standard or release two versions
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.