Wi-Fi won't weigh down handheld devices as much in future, as Broadcom introduces a single-chip component that provides IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN connectivity.

The company has unveiled its AirForce OneChip, which is already shipping in sample quantities and will appear in devices by the end of the year, starting with PDAs (personal digital assistants), according to Jeff Abramowitz, senior director of wireless LAN marketing at Broadcom, in Irvine, California.

IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN technology, offering a maximum carrying capacity of 11Mbit/s, is already available in some PDAs and in add-on devices such as cards that fit in Compact Flash slots. Broadcom says the integration of the whole Wi-Fi system into a single chip means less drain on a PDA's battery as well as lower cost and smaller size. OneChip consumes an average of 85 percent less power than other Wi-Fi systems on the market, according to Broadcom. Existing Wi-Fi components on handhelds can consume half the battery's power, halving battery life, Abramowitz said.

Future applications of OneChip could include digital cameras, MP3 music players and Wi-Fi VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) phones, he said.

The market for Wi-Fi on handheld devices has not been large so far and Broadcom is looking to seed that market with the new hardware, analysts said.

"Clearly the hope is that with this available, developers of systems that previously wouldn't have looked at wireless LAN ... will now look at it," said Gartner analyst Joe Byrne.

One issue for Broadcom is the spectre of Intel's Centrino offering for notebooks, which integrates Wi-Fi functionality into the system's main chipset. Broadcom will have limited opportunity to compete against Centrino on the notebook side, which represents the lion's share of the overall Wi-Fi market, so it needs to find or cultivate new markets, Byrne said.

Abramowitz said Broadcom's Wi-Fi offerings for notebooks offer higher performance and lower power consumption than Centrino does and Broadcom intends to keep competing in that market.

In addition to smaller chip size and greater integration, Broadcom has cut Wi-Fi power consumption with software it calls SuperStandby. SuperStandby wakes up the minimum amount of circuitry on the chip for the shortest possible time to check for incoming data, according to the company. As a result, OneChip consumes 97 percent less power in standby mode than does Intel's Centrino chipset for notebooks, the company said.