Storage

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.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

36 comments
8string
8string

The whole purpose for Intel pushing this is into the high(er) end graphics, gaming and video production world, which is ready for this move, myself included. Why settle for 5 when I can get 10 and all the other advantages? I can tell you that even W7 based video production people like myself am excited to see Apple pick this up. If Wintel doesn't bring this to the laptop market this year, my next upgrade will be back to Apple for this port. Esata is not a solid connector (having just lost a RAID array to a cable falling out), and the ability to put multiple products, like dual monitors and/or higher speed drives seem like a winner.

John Fantel
John Fantel

I have read that places are developing something like pizeo electric batteries that would not need to be replaced in a device. Currently, only very very small power outputs, but maybe for a WUSB mouse or keyboard may work.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Do we really need another video interface like Thunderbolt [what a dumb name!]? VGA. DVI. DisplayPort [for Macs]. HDMI. I've had a few times where my bluetooth mouse stopped working. Plug the receiver into another USB port - works fine. Plug it back into the original USB port - works fine again. Go figure. I'll stick with anything USB. One less port to deal with

scott.warren
scott.warren

I'm quite surprised that Intel hasn't answered it's mobile conundrum with a purchase of nVidia. This would give the a desperately needed Graphics chip and now growing mobile powerhouse solution. They really need to grow beyond notebook, pc an server chips or they are going be left behind.

sangraal
sangraal

Wireless technology is not the best implementation, from facilitating external batteries that die all the time to way too many frequencies propagateng around us

flixgal
flixgal

Isn't wireless USB and bluetooth the same thing????

joshua_keefer
joshua_keefer

Tablet + Wireless USB Dock + Desktop Virturalization on your tablet = Mobility Win.

dejeans
dejeans

Expanding the parameter of bluetooth would accomplish the same thing. However 10Gbs is what their competing with. So unless wireless USB goes to 11 it won't be my method of choice

chaz15
chaz15

Used to a 3Tb PC environment, I wouldn't want to use a smart phone as a PC substitute, except perhaps where there was no PC, maybe for word processing!

Lance.Fahey
Lance.Fahey

Sounds great if it is secured. Just imagine how fast your data could leave your device?

frankfmx
frankfmx

this is seriously the future, intel what is with them? what is AMD's stance on this?

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I can edit them but how would I make this go away?

stuart
stuart

the possibilities are awesome. think about it... although there is the security aspect, but there is always a security aspect. I think the consumer market would drive this like it did the smart phone.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

Security wasn't mentioned in this article at all. I would be concerned with wireless keylogging, unauthorized remote control, remote viewing and all the associated dangers. I also dislike superflous batteries. Why would I want batteries in my mouse and keyboard? Wired is simply more reliable. The other issue is the digital smog. We already live within a cloud of various radios like AM/FM, GSM, CDMA, and WiFi. It's everywhere. Even if you don't own a cell phone or a computer you simply can't escape the fields. Add some bluetooth and some wireless USB and soon there will be so much RFI that you won't be able to get a transmission in edge wise. Are we trying to find the saturation point? Must we occupy every frequency in the spectrum? When will this madness end? Wires, they really aren't that bad.

buchananm
buchananm

I have it hooked to usb security cameras around my house and sent back to my base. Costs $12 bucks for the crappy models. Just search for USB to WiFi

Slayer_
Slayer_

We are already concerned with WiFi and the affect on our bodies it is having, radiation producing CRT's and cell phones sound less dangerous then microwave producing PC's and phones. Want to stick that phone to your head?

gscratchtr
gscratchtr

was also "too loose" to be used as a permanent connnection (from a server to its external disks, for example). I may be the only one. I'm not familiar with Thunderbolt - is its physical connector more reliable?

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

I agree. The battery issue alone would suck. so then you could plug the phone in (w/ur usb cord of course) to charge it.... Then you might as well sync info faster thru the cable. Don't fix what ain't broke ;)

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

At a few feet from the PC to mouse/keyboard/whatever, there shouldn't be much in frequency issues. True. Batteries can be a pain.

bellrm
bellrm

Totally agree, Bluetooth is a natural first generation wireless USB technology and is already used as a form of wireless USB for simple devices such as phones, keyboards, mice, headsets etc. The downside is that this only really needs drivers to be developed and not chipsets which Intel want to sell ...

Sagax-
Sagax-

Anything transmitted over the air is subject to interception. While this is the mode upon which commercial TV and Radio stations rely, it may not be the place for either personal or commercial business transactions.

Bax2x
Bax2x

I too am curious about AMD. I generally prefer the underdog and in this case over Intel and always wish there was a way they could leap ahead somehow. Is this a potential chance, perhaps?

SKDTech
SKDTech

Aren't we already nearing the saturation point? At least in some spectrums anyway. 2.4 GHz is so overused it is ridiculous, between cordless phones, WiFi, wireless peripherals, GSM phones and common household devices like microwaves we have so much going on in the 2.4 spectrum that it is amazing any of it works properly.

inouyde
inouyde

will steal the phrase "digital smog" and drop it into techie conversations to impress my friends.. thanks, SPITFIRE_SYSOP

Wyldweezl
Wyldweezl

Sorry if I'm being unkind, but this post pretty clearly shows that you don't understand what he's talking about. WUSB is a completely different wireless architecture with MUCH higher throughput than good old fashioned RF Wi-Fi. If you remember what everyone thought Bluetoooth was going to be back in the day, you've got a pretty good idea what WUSB is supposed to be, and then some. Here's hoping.

chrisbedford
chrisbedford

USB to WiFi marries two existing technologies (you can find USB to just about anything, if you look hard enough) but wireless USB is a whole *new* technology. Much faster than either USB or WiFi, for starters.

chrisbedford
chrisbedford

"We are already concerned with WiFi and the affect (sic) on our bodies" - well you might be... I have yet to see any literature with convincing data.

bboyd
bboyd

Not if security matters. (almost universally poorly encrypted if at all) Not if speed matters, wireless overhead eats most of the bandwidth and wireless speed ratings are usually perfect case lies. Not if the device enters and exits the WiFi range often. Ten meters is not going to cover a lot of spaces once you factor signal attenuation for the real world Yes for that smart phone, netbook and tablet. But the smart device should have the PAN (Personal Area Network). Better yet use TCP/IP wireless and IPv6 addresses with a secure device ID chip. How many phones can work as a WiFi node currently? I should be able to tell my tablet to auto link to a wireless mouse that I own whenever it gets in range. Still Thunderbolt has its role. Should be a good take for superseding USB3 and eSATA. Nice for high speed data-loggers and video gear. Plus leaving that annoying USB plug format behind would be a blessings even if its not backward compatible. They (secondary markets) will make adapters for USB to TB if it become adopted.

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

Allow me to clarify... don't fix what ain't broke. as far as method. Cables can be good for data transfer/charging. But by all means, if you wish to make it even faster... go fer it!

Slayer_
Slayer_

Agree to disagree, statistically, we are both going to die of cancer anyways.

md_hunt
md_hunt

Having read all that dribble, I am more convinced than ever that WiFi is safe.