Ultrawideband, the short-range fast wireless technology, is following such a complex route to market, we can only understand it as a serial story, which we are calling UWB Soap.
In the first episode of UWB Soap, Freescale's Martin Rofheart explained how his company's DS-UWB would win out in the end, thanks to everyone else's incompetence. The Bluetooth SIG and the Certified Wireless USB group have got things wrong, and Freescale will win, he said. It reminded us of the 70s series Soap, where everyone's nuts except Benson the butler - the role we think Rofheart sees for himself.
In the second episode, the Bluetooth SIG - in the person of marketing director Anders Edlund - explained what turns out to be a rational strategy.
Given the level of delusion that Rofheart is alluding to, we hesitated to take our next step - approaching the "Certified" Wireless USB people. Doesn't "certified" have a different meaning in the US, we wondered? That of being detained for mental health reasons, somewhat similar to the word "sectioned" in the UK?
We needn't have worried. "The soap opera is over," said Jeff Ravencraft of Intel, chairman of the USB Implementors' Forum. "It's been over for some time." He's keen to correct some false impressions, but he's not showing any signs of delusion.
Correction - Certified WUSB will have dongles!
Rofheart claimed Certified Wireless USB changes so many things that it won't be compatible with existing USB 2.0, and vendors won't be able to make simple extenders, or "dongles". "Certified Wireless USB demands a redesign, with new hardware, software and a new protocol stack," he said. "If you want that to be a seamless experience, you will have to buy a new PC."
That's not true, says Ravencraft: "The first products will be HWAs and DWAs," he says. "They will help transition the market." He's talking about host wire adapters and device wire adapters, which are simply wireless USB hubs and dongles, that plug into existing USB connections.
"We wrote a host wire adapter spec, and a device wire spec, so Certified Wireless USB will have dongles," he says. "The big benefit is these introduce the technology and help to transition the market, by helping people maintain the investment in product they have already purchased."
Fairly quickly, these devices will be implemented "under the skin" of products, he says. So that a dongle is built into a printer or a camera, and a wireless hub is built in to a PC. It's an easy Google search to find a list of HWAs and DWAs promised from a bunch of different vendors.
Rofheart may be right in saying his Cable-Free technology is easy to add to existing products, but it's not going to perform well, says Ravencraft: "This cable-free solution isn't anything new. There are wireless USB products in the market place, and this is the exact same solution, done the same way, other than having a different radio. If you just take a wired protocol, put a wrapper on it and put it over wireless, it is not going to perform."
By contrast, Certified Wireless USB does make changes: "The company that defined USB 2.0 has re-defined it from the ground up, and optimised it for wireless. This protocol is going to absolutely fly. It will deliver actual throughput, of 75 percent - that's 355 Mbit/s - over a dedicated link, and even on a shared link it will deliver 66 percent. You won't get anything like that from Cable-Free."
However, those changes won't invalidate existing USB work: "The device drivers, for things such as audio, video, and mass storage, they will all work just as they do today, but they are going to fly over this protocol."
As Ravencraft points out, if you are replacing a cable with a radio link, it needs new hardware, whether that radio is in a new compenent or integrated in a replacement product.
There's this perception that for legacy computers, cable-free really is the way to go. Comments Intel wants to sell new computers. Freescale also sells silicon. Dones't matter which solution you have to have new hardware, either in dongle, or discrete component, or buy new product that has it integrated in.
Who has the market lead?
"The claim that Freescale is one to two years ahead has become laughable," says Jim Lansford, chief technical officer of Alereon. "Mr. Rofheart said they were two years ahead of MBOA in 2003. We have yet to see product ship from them."
It's likely that there will be some Cable-Free products on the shelves first, if Rofheart's promise of July delivery comes true. But the lead won't be as big as he claims. "We are anticipating compliant WiMedia silicon in Q2 this year," says Ravencraft, "so we are anticipating certified Wireless USB in the marketplace in the back half of this year."
Lansford is keen to set the record straight on WiMedia's demonstrations: "At CES, at least six WiMedia companies were showing working silicon, many (including Alereon) had 480 Mbit/s working," he says. "Freescale has yet to ship 110 Mbit/s, and some of us in WiMedia are on the verge of launching 480 Mbit/s by the time the proprietary "cable free" products ship, if they ever do."
When Certified Wireless USB arrives, it will come complete with all the software it needs, says Fred Bhesania, a WiMedia board member and programme manager for wireless USB at Microsoft: "When we have seen a new technology develop, one of the big infrastructure pieces is software." It's important to make the 15 or so existing USB class drivers for specific types of products work, he says. "To achieve that, and also get ease of use, some portion of software is necessary. The challenge is to keep the software in step with the hardware."
So what about Bluetooth?
Cable Free's success or failure should be clear by the end of the year, then. But the next season of UWB Soap will have plenty to focus on, as the relationship between Bluetooth and wireless USB becomes clearer on the world stage.
Both Bluetooth and Certified Wireless USB will use the WiMedia technology. They are using different frequency ranges, but this won't be a problem for silicon vendors, says Ravencraft: "Having Bluetooth SIG support WiMeda is a huge benefit. We're going to have the same radio, which will drive volumes and bring the cost down quickly."
This doesn't mean that a phone with USB Bluetooth will be able to pair with Certified Wireless USB devices, clarifies Ravencraft: "Manufacturers will deploy the protocol they feel meets the needs of consumers. It might be Bluetooth, Certified Wireless USB, or Wimedia, or IEEE 1394, but they can all run on the same radio, without interfering. It's a huge benefit. You can't keep having a new radio for every protocol."
The difference here will be in regulations. Bluetooth chose its spectrum to make sure that the UWB version of Bluetooth should have a world market, while Certified Wireless USB is, at the moment, only approved for the US market.
Ravencraft can't be definitive, because it's not up to him. "Both Japan and Europe are in the process of finalising their requirements," he says. "They will legalise UWB, but it is a matter of what their final requirement is going to be. Wimedia is closely involved, and the net net is that we will see a worldwide standard, and products that ship round the world on Certified Wireless USB."
So it sounds as if the Certified standards could change to meet worldwide regulations, if a different mask is agreed. As Ravencraft explains it, the basic WiMedia radio can handle either mask, it's just a matter of changing the protocol.
"This comes down to business," says Ravencraft. "At the end of the day, this mask thing will go away - these products will work fine wherever they are used."
Coming soon on UWB Soap...
"I frequently tell people that IEEE meetings are like a soap opera without the sex," says Lansford. "In this sense, I prefer the TV show."
In his view, Freescale's role in promoting a proprietary solution has been tried many times before, by vendors like Proxim, which pushed OpenAir, before adopting Wi-Fi, or by the Betamax vendors who lost to VHS. "Any attempt to equate these two technology initiatives is absurd - WiMedia has the overwhelming support of the market makers. The only way [Freescale's] DS-UWB could survive is if they got to market much quicker (which they didn't), operated faster (they are slower), or had the backing of a market maker (which they don't). Does Don Quixote come to mind?"
Going back to the Soap analogy, he winds up: "It just seems to me that in this version, Benson doesn't get his own show, but rather gets written out of the script..."