Wireless Confusion

by Bob Seidel

There is a bit of confusion about what the term "wireless" means, and it's soon going to get worse. Sounds like time for a little enlightenment.

The term "wireless" is very generic - it does not apply to any specific type of technology. Common usage, however, sometimes changes that, such as using the generic word "coke" to describe any cola drink. "Wireless" just means a way of exchanging information between devices without using wires. Simple, eh?

The first practical popular wireless technology that I can think of was IR, using infrared light. IR is very popular for TV remote controls. It became popular (well, not very popular) with notebook PCs and also handheld units. The theory was that you could "beam" information from your notebook to a peripheral device, such as a printer, or use IR to network multiple PCs in an office. It was also used in handheld PCs such as the Palm. But IR didn't work very well - it had limited range, was affected by ambient light, and the sender/receiver pair had to be able to "see" each other.

Sounding the death knell for IR was Microsoft itself. As often happens, MS terminated its plans to embellish IR and just let it die a slow death. I was working for a company at that time, whose engineers had built a whole proposal around IR technology. When they finally got around to talking to the programmers, they were advised that they had wasted a lot of time pursuing something that was no longer technically viable. Bitter note: Of course, my management blamed the programmers anyhow.

Another similar wireless system was Bluetooth. This was pushed a lot harder by MS, but still didn't make the grade. Bluetooth used radio frequencies instead of light and was a better design than IR. But its range was also limited, and there weren't many devices that supported it.

The more generic term "wireless" now refers to wireless networking, specifically the 802.11 standard. Wireless networking works the same (and uses mostly the same software) as standard wired networking using CAT5 cable - it just does it without wires. Wireless networking is ubiquitous, and every hotel and coffee shop seems to offer it these days. When you hear the term "wireless", this is what most people are referring to.

The upcoming new wrinkle in wireless is Wireless USB. USB is a great technology - one of the most important aspects of it is that you can add many devices to your PC without opening up the case and plugging in cards, as was done in the past. But now everybody's PC is a mess of USB cables - I myself have 3 USB hubs on my desktop or the top of my PC. Each of those 4-port hubs has wires coming out of it to various devices.

Wireless USB promises to clear that mess up. New USB devices will connect via wireless USB, without cables. Wireless USB speeds should be comparable with today's USB 2.0 speeds - about 400 megabits/second. To support the new devices, all that you will probably need is a wireless USB hub - this will connect to your PC via a normal wired USB cable, but support the new wireless devices. The bad news is that you will probably have both wires and wireless PC devices until some time in the far future when all your current wired USB devices finally give up the ghost.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)