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it was obvious that wireless has become an important part of the consumer electronics marketplace

Rites Of Winter: The Gadget Fest

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The wireless industry participates in many shows each year: CTIA's two shows, 3GSM, the 3G World Congress and the granddaddy of them all, CBit, as well as many smaller shows. Until it died, Comdex was for and about the computer industry as most of these shows are for the wireless industry, with the exception of the CTIA fall show that caters to customers as well.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held each January in Las Vegas is the trade show for every conceivable type of gadget from low-end audio to super-high-end video and audio equipment. This show is for buyers who will be deciding what to put on store shelves later in the year.

Only a few years ago, wireless was not a big deal at this show. You could find some wireless -- a handset or two and perhaps a little early Wi-Fi equipment. Starting last year, CES incorporated wireless in a big way. This year, one "city" within the show was devoted to wireless and wireless was evident in many of the other "cities."

Handset vendors were there in force including Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola and others. Technologies such as UltraWideBand, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, WiBRO and others were being shown in many booths and pavilions. Midland and others were there with two-way radios for marine, ham and commercial services, as were some of the wireless network providers.

And wireless was not confined to booths of wireless companies. Wireless was part of Microsoft's huge booth and some A/V equipment vendors were touting wireless connections between DVD and HDTV sets and how wireless can reduce the number of wires needed for installations. Wireless house alarms, lighting controls, video cameras, whole-house audio and video distribution, you name it, it was there.

There were too many wireless products for me to list here and it was obvious that wireless has become an important part of the consumer electronics marketplace. Unlike wireless for the industry shows, CES is about wireless for the rest of us. Wireless is being used or embedded in a wide variety of products to eliminate wires, provide positive feedback for command and control, extend the range of consumer devices and, of course, to provide access to voice and information wherever we happen to be.

CES is not about wireless, but it is embracing wireless because it is another way of moving voice and data from here to there and back again. It enhances the capabilities of many consumer-based products by providing ways to stream audio and video from satellites and from across the room. It enables music and video downloads, and it carries conversations.

Wireless-only companies were showing their products not only to buyers who roamed the floors by the thousands, but also to product managers, engineers and others from companies looking for better ways to connect their devices with others, to make their devices more mobile or to control a device they were considering or already building.

At a show such as CES, you can "feel" where the hype is for a given type of wireless device or service. Last year, the entire show floor seemed to be about Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a sprinkling of other wireless technologies. This year, the Wi-Fi community was there with all of its equipment vendors including D-Link, Linksys and Netgear. Now that Wi-Fi is a commodity that comes in boxes and can be installed by mere mortals, instead of loudly shouting about Wi-Fi they were showing their newest devices aimed at harnessing Wi-Fi as part of in-home communications systems. There was some hype surrounding VoIP (Voice over IP), but even that was subdued.

UWB, Bluetooth, Zigbee and its competitor Insteon (Smarthome) were all there. UWB was being shown by two types of companies. Freescale Semiconductor was showing its UWB chipset for use over both standard coax cable and over the air. When used over a standard home cable system, its chipset is built into a device that enables HD audio and video to be sent over the unused portion of the cable and can mix cable TV signals with HD signals anywhere in the house. Its over-the-air technology was being demonstrated by transmitting signals from an HD DVD player to a flat-panel screen mounted on a wall.

Alereon out of Austin, Texas represents the other end of UWB. Instead of home A/V-type transmissions, products powered by its chipsets will be used for Wireless USB, which will find its way into notebook computers, peripherals, cameras, printers and, at some point, wireless devices. As a result, many of these UWB devices will not need USB cables for a connection.

On the wide-area front, the biggest news was Verizon's launch of its VCast music service. With both Verizon and Microsoft speaking, the official launch at the Hard Rock was well attended. Verizon has developed a pricing model that I think will be a hit. Customers subscribe to VCast service to gain access to VCast video and the new music download service. The fee for downloading over the air is currently $1.99 per song and the song is also available for your PC. If you wait until you are at your PC, you can download the song for $0.99 (the standard iPod price).

Once songs are downloaded to your PC, you can connect your phone (an LG 8100 or Samsung e950) and copy them over. You can also move any MP3 file on your PC to the phone with a cable connection. If you read my earlier commentary, you know that the Internet community is having a field day with the fact that Verizon VCast music service uses the WMA (Windows Media) format instead of the typical MP3 format. They seem to think Microsoft is taking over and they will no longer be able to listen to MP3 files. The truth is that when you download a file from your PC to your phone, the MP3 file is copied and the copy is converted to a WMA file, leaving the original MP3 file intact.

Verizon will have 500,000 songs at launch with a million by spring and more to come. From my experiences with the LG 8100 over the past week, I think they have a winner here. There is lot of flexibility when it comes to downloading music, copying CDs to the phone and loading existing MP3 files already on your PC. The system uses the Microsoft DRM (Digital Rights Management) scheme and is very generous with what it permits you to do with the music.

Samsung was showing many new wireless phones at CES, including its Verizon world phone, which includes CDMA plus GSM capabilities, a new series of WCDMA phones with GSM capabilities and many others. The price of wireless phones is coming down almost as fast as prices for LCD and DLP HD screens. Today, there are 3G phones available for less than $100.

Samsung was also showing its WiBro technology. WiBro is a not-quite-WiMAX standard designed for full mobility that is being deployed in Korea. Sprint has agreed to trial it in the United States. I asked Samsung why it was supporting full mobility when the back-end infrastructure costs so much more than fixed services. The response was that WiBRO would be successful partly because it is a full mobility solution. Given that most wide-area networks have already deployed high-speed 3G technologies that include full mobility, I find it hard to believe any company would build out a mobile WiBro network to compete with its 3G network.


There was a lot more at the show, some of which I will write about over time. Several companies are sending products so I can have first-hand experience with them and I will provide my impressions of them. I will be looking at several home automation products, some UWB devices, Bluetooth products and some new wide-area wireless products.

Wireless and CES have come together, but this is not about the wireless industry promoting wireless to the wireless industry. Rather, it is about consumer companies embracing wireless to improve their products and to add functionality. Wireless has become mainstream in our everyday lives.

Andrew M. Seybold

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