Forget Intel's Thunderbolt, Wireless USB is the revolution

Intel's Thunderbolt leapfrogged USB 3.0 as the new cable solution Intel is pushing. But, the real game-charger is Wireless USB. Learn how it could change computing and why Intel is avoiding it.

Last week Intel made a big deal about the official launch of its Light Peak technology — now called Thunderbolt — which enables much faster data transfers (10Gbps) and the ability to consolidate accessories and video connections into one cable with a connector that is half the size of a USB plug.

While those are useful features, the arrival of Thunderbolt had me scratching my head and asking two big questions:

  1. What happened to USB 3.0?
  2. Where's Wireless USB?

Both of those technologies have been in development for years, but somehow Light Peak/Thunderbolt was able to leapfrog them, at least in terms of getting the green light from Intel and its partners.

Some of that certainly has to do with Apple getting on board with Thunderbolt. Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptops are the first computers to include Thunderbolt. Also, while Thunderbolt was originally expected to use the same type of connector as USB (a confict with USB-IF apparently prevented that), when Thunderbolt was unveiled last week it was surprisingly announced that it will use a Mini DisplayPort connector — a technology developed by Apple and licensed without a fee.

One of the big advantages of Thunderbolt is that it's capable enough to handle LCD monitors and other displays so it can replace the need for VGA, DVI, or HDMI ports on laptops and desktops. That means users only need to worry about one type of cable for all of their accessories. However, USB 3.0 (also called "SuperSpeed USB") has been developing the same thing. A number of display manufacturers have mentioned to me in recent years that USB 3.0 will eliminate the need for those other video connectors in computers and allow users to connect their monitors to a USB port. Will display makers dump the work they've been doing preparing for USB 3.0 and switch to Thunderbolt? I doubt it, at least not right away.

Also, keep in mind that USB 3.0 is backward compatible with the millions of existing USB peripherals as well, while Thunderbolt will require adapters to work with them. The only drawbacks to USB 3.0 versus Thunderbolt are 1.) it's half as fast (5Gbps for USB 3.0 vs. 10Gbps for Thunderbolt) and 2.) the USB 3.0 connector is a little larger.

However, the real missed opportunity here is Wireless USB. That's the technology that I would love to see Intel pushing instead of Thunderbolt. Sure, Thunderbolt will deliver faster file transfers and consolidate cables, but Wireless USB is a much bigger game-changer. It can reduce accessory cables altogether and has the potential to introduce a universal wireless docking solution that could turn the computing industry on its head. In fact, the latter is probably why Intel isn't pushing it — that type of radical change isn't in their self-interest. More on that in a moment.

First, let's talk about the elimination of accessory cables. This is long overdue. At the same time Wi-Fi first came on the scene a decade ago and launched the concept of the WLAN (that's wireless local area network), there was another hot new term at the time called PAN (personal area network). The idea was that not only would computers connect wirelessly to corporate networks and the Internet, but that there would also be mini wireless networks centered a desktop or laptop machine itself, in order to connect mice, keyboards, monitors, printers, scanners, headphones, PDAs (now smartphones), etc. The hope back then was that Bluetooth would be the enabler of the PAN, but that hasn't happened because Bluetooth is flaky, slow, and difficult to set up. To make the PAN happen, we need something more robust like Wireless USB.

Building on that concept of the PAN is the idea of the wireless docking solution — this is the killer feature of Wireless USB. Accessory makers have been chomping at the bit for a couple years to get this because it would make it infinitely easier for mobile users to dock a laptop to a full monitor, keyboard, and mouse (using a Wireless USB connection a laptop could simply connect to a dock that has legacy peripherals plugged in).

In fact, it would not only be easy, it would turn Wireless USB into a universal docking solution instead of the current situation where each laptop maker has its own proprietary docking connectors and then badly overcharges for the docks. A universal wireless docking solution would have two big effects for mobile users — it would make docks a lot cheaper and it would likely spawn a lot more places to dock. For example, offices and other institutions could set up public work areas where people could dock to work no matter what platform they are running (Windows, Mac, Linux, iPad, etc), as long as it has Wireless USB. I can even imagine Internet cafes offering docking areas.

However, once we take this idea one step further, then we start to see why Intel may not be so enthusiastic about it. Think about the Motorola Atrix. This is a dual core Android smartphone with 1GB of RAM and Motorola's "Webtop" software, which allows it to look and act like a full PC when loaded into the desktop dock (with monitor, keyboard, and mouse) or the laptop dock.

Now imagine if the Atrix and other dual core smartphones could perform the same feat, but without having to dock at all by simply using Wireless USB — which offers plenty to speed to accomplish this with 480Mbps at 3 meters and 110Mbps at 10 meters. Suddenly, a lot of smartphones would become potential PC replacements. Same goes for tablets. They could wirelessly dock and become full desktop computers when people needed to do more serious work. Since virtually all smartphones and tablets are powered by mobile ARM chips rather than Intel chips (and Intel has repeatedly been unable to break into the mobile market), this scenario could be apocalyptic for Intel because it would enable people to replace (Intel-powered) laptops and desktops with (ARM-powered) smartphones and tablets.

However, this scenario would be fantastic for consumers and business professionals. But, without Intel to push Wireless USB, who will step up and lead the charge? I'm looking at you, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Motorola, and Samsung.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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