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.
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.
James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.