The Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei has unveiled a
rather unique new product using an old technology at CEATEC 2013: a HSPA+
(3G) modem on a standard-sized SDIO card, complete with a small slot for a
micro-SIM. A return to SDIO is an intriguing move. Many laptops include a
built-in SD card slot, which is electrically-compatible with SDIO cards, though additional drivers are often needed in order to properly utilize the features
of SDIO.

While 3G speeds aren’t exactly the fastest thing out
there at the moment, the availability of towers is still far higher around the
world than 4G. The Huawei UltraStick SDIO is a very creative solution to a
growing problem in consumer electronics: the lack of expandability. With the
rise in popularity of smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks, the customization
and expandability of traditional desktop computers has not followed this trend,
but a return to SDIO for expandability is the perfect solution.

The death of ExpressCard

Most consumer laptops throughout the 1990s until around the
middle of the next decade, save for Apple products, could use a PCMCIA
expansion card (otherwise known in various iterations as a PC Card or CardBus). This is effectively a standard PCI bus like you would find on a desktop computer but in
a smaller form factor. It was later replaced with ExpressCard, which is
essentially a PCI Express bus in yet an even smaller form factor.

With the rise in popularity of USB (particularly USB 2.0),
the default inclusion of wireless networking on laptops, and lack of particular
need for expandability, ExpressCard has fallen by the wayside in common usage.
Attempts to search for new laptops that contain ExpressCard slots have been
unsuccessful. Currently available ExpressCard products appear to consist primarily
of niche products by StarTech, a company noted for producing products
for extremely specific use cases. The things that are currently available include adaptors for USB 3.0, eSATA, FireWire,
RS232, and a Gigabit Ethernet network card, all of which are either typically
included on a laptop or completely obsolete.

A brief history of SDIO

SDIO was a mainstay of PDA and smartphone devices before the
age of the iPhone. It was commonly used to add Bluetooth or 802.11b support
to devices such as the HP iPAQ and Palm PDAs. One of the most unique
applications of SDIO was for a 1.3 MP camera attachment produced by HP as an
add-on to certain iPAQ models.

The SD Association indicates that SDIO is capable of
accommodating other functions — TV tuners, voice recorders, and
fingerprint scanners — though no record of commercial availability of such
products could be found.

An honorable mention here in the history of SDIO is the
popular Eye-Fi SD card, which allows users to
automatically upload photos taken from digital cameras to a local computer,
mobile device, or photo-sharing web site. Strictly speaking, the magic behind
this technology isn’t SDIO, as the real work is done using a USB dongle; the
camera that stores the data isn’t aware that the SD card is anything
more than just an SD card.

Heralding the return of SDIO

Because of its small size and the ease of embedding it in
devices like mobile phones, tablets, and laptops, a mass adoption of SDIO in
consumer electronics is a more palatable option for consumers than continuing
to rely on integrated cellular radios, and it reduces the need for multiple
incompatible SKUs to be produced.

Expecting Apple to cooperate in such an initiative is a pipe
dream, but a good example of this is the iPad 2, which has 18 different SKUs (the most of any iPad product) in order to accommodate three different storage
sizes (16, 32, and 64 GB), two colors, and options for cellular connectivity
through standard GSM networks or Verizon’s CDMA network (with cellular
connectable units priced at an extra $100). Adopting SDIO would negate the need
to manufacture alternative SKUs and allow consumers to easily switch
networks, particularly in the United States with the incompatible GSM and CDMA networks.

Final thoughts

According to Engadget China, Huawei is still working to partner with carriers on this endeavor.
The Huawei UltraStick is anticipated to hit the streets soon. If the product is
a success — considering it being a stock 3G radio in a neat package — expect
knockoffs to hit the streets as well.