Sifting for clues to the future of mobile computing

This year's US Consumer Electronics Show saw many new developments

Apple’s iPhone, unveiled 912kms away at Macworld in San Francisco, combined with Cisco’s faster-than-a-speeding-bullet trademark lawsuit against Apple, threatened to relegate the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month to a footnote.

Nonetheless, what could be seen at CES was a new excitement about next-generation wireless LANs, the spread of multiple wireless technologies into portable devices and continued price declines. Also evident at the show, which attracted 150,000 attendees, 2,700 exhibitors and headliners such as Bill Gates and Cisco CEO John Chambers, was how a wide range of companies are changing and adapting to apply these technologies to new areas.

WLAN chip-makers and equipment manufacturers showcased advances in the next generation of wi-fi: products based on draft one of the still-developing 802.11n standard. Attendees saw new WLAN access points delivering at least 150Mbbit/s and more, and able to carry two or more high-definition TV signals at the same time through several walls. Where 11a and 11g networks might drop to 1Mbit/s at 30m or even less, 11n will be able to sustain double digit throughput rates, according to vendors.

For the first time, attendees saw new pre-11n WLAN access points, such as Buffalo Technology’s new AirStation Wireless - N Nfiniti dual-band router and access point, that can deliver 150+Mbit/s simultaneously on two frequencies, 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with up to 27 channels.

“We’ll offer buyers, in effect, two 802.11n networks in that one product, one on the 2.4 band, the other on the 5 band, and they can run at the same time,” said Brian Verenkoff, product marketing manager for Austin-based Buffalo.

In a related move, chip-makers are now beefing-up access-point network processors, which are packaged with the radio chipsets, to manage the flood of data, voice, video and audio packets that 11n makes possible. That data will overwhelm the current generation of processors.

Airgo Networks, just acquired by Qualcomm, is now sampling what it calls a draft 2-compatible 11n chipset, even though draft 2 has not yet been finalised by the IEEE task group, which is scheduled to meet later this month.

“Of the things still being discussed [by the task group], we’re dealing with a very small number of issues,” said Greg Raleigh, Airgo founder and now vice president, wireless connectivity for Qualcomm. “We just don’t see any hardware issues ahead.”

Airgo plans to make its first commercial shipment of the new chipset in February or March. The Wi-Fi Alliance is on schedule to begin certification testing for draft 2 products around May, by which time the task group is expected to have voted to adopt draft two.

Qualcomm’s purchase of Airgo is itself part of a trend towards trying to bring together several different wireless technologies into the next generation of mobile devices, said Mike Concannon, Qualcomm’s vice president of strategic products.

“We wanted to beef-up connectivity outside of [just] the cellular modem, and apply these to products outside the [voice] handset space,” he said. The goal is to bring together wireless LAN with advanced wireless WAN, Bluetooth and ultra wideband so that mobile users simply get, and stay, connected for voice, data, messaging, audio, video and gaming.

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