Wireless products dominate Comdex

Wireless products dominate Comdex

By Thomas R. Temin

GCN Staff

LAS VEGAS—Feeling disconnected? A wave of wireless connectivity products might persuade network administrators to cut the cord linking their users to LAN servers while still giving them Ethernet-speed access.

Wireless technologies dominated the giant Comdex trade show here last week, with much of the activity centering on WiFi and Bluetooth technologies.

Bluetooth'the name a confederation of suppliers has given the technology'has gotten the most publicity lately, but so far there's still more promise than product. Jerry Purdy, the chief executive officer of Mobile Insights Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., told a gathering of press and analysts that Bluetooth is still disappointing and won't be widely adopted until 2002.

WiFi, or wireless fidelity, is the interoperability certification granted by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, a vendor group pushing for wide adoption of products based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11b standard. The 68 WECA member companies submit their products to an independent test lab.

So far, according to Angela Champness, a product business director at the Orinoco unit of Lucent Technologies Inc. of Basking Ridge, N.J., 54 products from 24 vendors are certified. The certification program started in March.

Bluetooth is a 2.4-GHz radio technology intended for so-called peripheral-area networks, or PANs'in other words, a replacement for cables that connect printers, input devices, cameras and other peripherals to PCs. It works across distances of no more than 30 feet, while 802.11b networking covers 300 feet.

Part of Bluetooth's problem is that it operates on the same frequency as 802.11b equipment. That can cause interference, even though Bluetooth and wireless LANs use different data transmission techniques.

The other roadblock to adoption is that few peripherals are available with Bluetooth capability.

But 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., demonstrated a notebook PC with both Bluetooth and 802.11b PC cards running simultaneously, with the PC Card able to maintain its maximum close-range speed of 11 Mbps. 3Com also displayed a Bluetooth PC card and Universal Serial Bus adapter, neither of which will ship before the middle of next year.

IBM Corp. is shipping a $189 Bluetooth card, and showed it working with a Bluetooth version of the XyLoc PC security device from Ensure Technologies of Ann Arbor, Mich. XyLoc is a radio frequency badge that, coupled with software on a PC, locks the machine when its badge-wearing user moves more than a few feet away. It unlocks it when the user returns.

Logitec Inc. of Fremont, Calif., demonstrated a prototype Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, but a company spokesman said there were no immediate plans to produce them.

On the WiFi front, Lucent's Champness showed a tiny 802.11b circuit board that several PC makers, including Dell Computer Corp. and IBM, are incorporating into notebooks. Other notebook vendors said they were reserving the motherboard space for combination modem and Ethernet adapter boards, and instead using the mini PCI slot for 802.11b cards.

In nearly every case, the new, wireless-equipped notebooks have the antennae built into the lid so there's no dongle to break off.

Proxim Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., has rolled out several wireless network products. Its $2,195 Stratum MP is a multipoint bridge allowing 11-Mpbs line-of-sight data transmission via the unlicensed 2.4 GHz frequency for up to 12 miles. The company's Harmony AP controller manages several wireless access points at once. It supports not only 802.11b devices, but also 10-Mbps wideband frequency hopping and 1.6-Mbps Open Air devices, according to marketing director Lynn Chroust.

Engineers at Netgear Inc. of Santa Clara aren't convinced that the 802.11b standard is robust enough for all applications. Its wireless adapter cards and access points, dubbed 11X and designed for small offices, switch channels on the fly and support a technique called forward error correction, both extensions of the standard.

Vivek Pathela, Netgear's director of product management and marketing, said these features reduce the need for administrator intervention and boost speed through walls. Such features, he said, will be included in a forthcoming update of the standard, to be called 802.11e.

According to Champness, who is a member of WECA's board of directors, Federal Communications Commission approval of a new frequency modulation scheme for 2.4-GHz transmission could nearly double 802.11b bandwith to 20 Mbps. Looming further on the horizon is the 802.11a standard covering transmissions at 5 GHz. Champness said WECA is readying the certification process, but 802.11a products aren't expected before 2002. In research labs, the higher-frequency products have shown speeds of 54 Mbps, she said.

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