Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The early marketplace victory that WiFi scored against a rival standard called HomeRF started a wave of great marketplace momentum that allowed the wireless networking standard to sideline Bluetooth and set a high bar for 3G access speeds to match. The excitement around WiFi even created a short-lived hotspot investment bubble two years ago. While hotspots failed to bring in concrete profits, though, WiFi had remained a largely unchallenged wireless access technology in the home.

However, the rollout of EV-DO by Verizon Wireless in late 2004 began the first credible alternative to hotspot access. Its success prompted Sprint and Cingular to roll out high-speed data networks as well, even as revenue prospects beyond notebook access remain murky. WiMax will emerge as another potential competitor for WiFi, particularly for campus use as the mobile version of that standard starts appearing in products. That WiFi would see strong competition as an access technology outside the home was not surprising. However, at CES a new wave of wireless and wired technologies is taking their shot at the standard in the home.

Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology has been discussed for several years, often in the context of its rival technology factions. However, at CES, Staccato Communications showed off its chips for Wireless USB. Created to leverage ultra wideband technology, Wireless USB will essentially bring nearly all the benefits and limitations of USB to wireless technology. High-speed devices such as webcams and digital media receivers will be able to be set up without an intimate knowledge of networks.
Furthermore, other wireless technologies such as Wireless 1394 (FireWire) and Bluetooth are moving toward UWB. While WiFi isn’t used extensively to network peripherals today, this could become a missed opportunity for the popular networking technology. Questions remain about the range that UWB offers, but the technology should do a better job of dealing with walls and other kinds of interference.

In any case, don’t throw out that access point just yet. Staccato says that it won’t be shipping silicon to companies until the third quarter of this year, so we probably won’t see many Wireless USB products until 2007.

Another chip company hopping on the UWB bandwagon is PulseLink with its CWave product. PulseLink claims it will deliver gigabit-rate wireless connectivity and that its chips will ship to companies by the middle of the year. PulseLink’s connectivity is so fast that it can transfer HDTV in real-time, the equivalent of a wireless HDMI connection. The tradeoff is that the proprietary platform isn’t compatible with other standards which the company claims would slow it down. CWave will also work over powerline and coaxial cables.

And speaking of wired connections, they too are targets for substantial upgrades in 2006, with new versions of standards for moving data across home phone lines and powerlines being capable of sending high-definition TV signals with better reliability than even so-called “pre-n” versions of WiFi can provide. If WiFi backers can’t keep the popular wireless access technology at the top of its game, there will be no shortage of alternatives in 2006 and beyond to cut its marketplace cords.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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