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Ultra Wideband Rivals Woo Bluetooth

Which of the two rival Ultra Wideband wireless technologies will the next version of Bluetooth be based on? The question may seem academic, as both offer similar promises: ranges of a few feet, and a data rate of around 100 Mbits/sec--enough to stream DVD-quality video. But it matters a great deal to the companies involved, and more importantly, to anyone thinking of using the technology. Business and consumer products using each of the two incompatible variants will appear over the coming months, and Bluetooth’s endorsement could decide which ends up as VHS and which as Betamax.

Right now, the Intel-led Wi-Media Alliance looks like a likely winner. It held its first successful interoperability tests earlier this month, with products from five different companies working together. The computer industry has also adopted its spec for wireless versions of the USB and Firewire (IEEE 1394) interfaces. At the Alliance’s meeting Thursday in San Francisco, the keynote speaker was Michael W. Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the association of more than 4,000 vendors that sets the Bluetooth standard.

Foley won’t commit the SIG to a decision yet. “We're talking to both groups,” he says. The other group is the UWB Forum, led by Motorola spin-off Freescale. Though it hasn’t attracted as much vendor support, it's beating Wi-Media to market, with radio chips already shipping to device manufacturers. The IEEE formally disbanded its attempts to unite the two standards last month.

The first UWB products from each group will be replacements for USB extender cables--radio dongles that can connect a PC’s USB port to a peripheral such as a thumb drive or a printer. The long-term aim is to eliminate the ports and dongles altogether, building UWB straight into everything. Consumer electronics are the largest market, but the technology is also aimed at business tools such as PDAs and BlackBerrys, and even PC components like monitors.

Bluetooth is quickly becoming standard on cell phones, which in turn are beginning to replace other business and consumer devices. However, the present spec maxes out at 3 Mbits/sec--fast enough to play MP3 files in real time, but not to transfer large photo albums or PowerPoint presentations in real time. The hope is that by combining the two, Bluetooth will get a speed boost, and UWB will get a larger market share.

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