Notebook makers embrace the wireless era

At a time when wireless technology is moving towards mass consumer and business acceptance, PC manufacturers have been hurriedly producing models to satisfy the growing hunger for fully mobile laptops.

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By  Robin Duff Published  December 30, 2001

I|~||~||~|The ultimate benefits of including the latest in wireless technology on a notebook are obvious, with the opportunity to connect to e-mail and Web based services without the inconvenience of having to be bound to being at a fixed point.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are increasingly incorporating one form or another of wireless networking- typically the systems known as 802.11b or Bluetooth- into both notebooks and other devices. Last year, many manufacturers merely showed off products that eventually would include wireless capabilities. Now those products are starting to hit the market as we enter 2002.

Ram Mohan, director of business development at Acer Middle East believes that growth in the use of wireless technology is inevitable for one reason: people and business need it.

“The flexibility that it will offer the user is unrivalled with products currently on the market,” Mohan comments. “Students can be connected to their work or their library anywhere in the campus, working people can move around the office, or in airport lounge, and still have access to all Local Area Network (LAN) and Web applications”

Acer has been working on including wireless technology in its notebooks for some time now, however only its premium series of notebooks feature 802.11b built in. The caution is temporary though says Mohan. “We should see this moving to the mainstream segment by the middle of 2002.”

The fact that Acer has chosen the 802.11b standard as its wireless frequency is a case in point: not every other manufacturer has gone down this route, with some choosing to use the more well-known Bluetooth standard. So what's the difference?

||**||II|~||~||~|DTK's marketing manager Syed Inam Hussain, believes that Bluetooth should be the choice, certainly from the point of view of the personal area network (PAN), which is the short range area in which a notebook tends to be operated within.

For PANs, “Bluetooth is the choice as it offers significant advantages over other transfer technologies, such as Infra Red (IrDA),” says Hussain. “It also offers longer connection distances than IrDA and does not require line-of-sight requirement for communication. Also, Bluetooth’s key strength is its ability to simultaneously handle both data and voice transmissions. Also, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG)'s existence ensures continued research.”

Hussain, however, does add that DTK uses 802.11b for its FortisPro line of notebooks. Despite Bluetooth’s much-vaunted name, 802.11b has managed to establish itself as the first real across-the-board wireless standard in the industry. Acer’s Mohan explains that, at a time when companies were initially looking at wireless solutions for home and business, 802.11b was the only technology which offered immediate acceptance across the board for all manufacturers as it acted as a an alternative to Ethernet without sacrificing speed (against Ethernet's throughput of 10 Mbps, it offered 11 Mbps, which is adequate for most LAN and Internet applications).

Another significant factor in its success is that it is interoperable with existing Ethernet software and hence requires no upgrading of the existing IT infrastructure of an organisation to get it up and running.

IBM chose to integrate 802.11b into its T, A, R and X ThinkPad notebook range, with all of them coming equipped with dual antennae, and with the 802.11b radio built in via mini-PCI so that users no longer have to use a PC Card and cumbersome “bump” antenna for wireless LAN applications. Sameh Farid, IBM's PCD regional manager for the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, says that the company went with 802.11b as it currently offers “the best performance.” The ThinkPad's dual antennae design was designed to offer a better signal performance than competitors’ models.

“The antennae are mounted on in the display area to minimise the environmental effects of the desk, user's body, as well as the electrical noise of the high-speed processor and electronics,” says Farid. “The antennae actually optimise for gain, which means that, rather than being negatively affected by surrounding components, they actually leverage them, and thus enhance performance.”

Essentially, IBM has created a system, through the incorporation of two antennae, which monitors and picks whichever antenna has the best signal strength at any given moment.

So, 802.11b is clearly the front-runner at the moment: but Bluetooth isn't going to go away: it has too many people investing their R&D cash into it. Bluetooth is a very short-range (10 metres in ODBM mode) radio technology that links devices for automatic data exchange: this is in comparison to 802.11b, which is intermediate and reaches up to 100 metres and runs at speeds comparable to standard Ethernet. Future, similar, technologies are in the pipeline, including 802.11e, which will add multimedia and quality-of-service support to the 802.11 standard. 802.11a operates on the less-crowded 5GHz band and offers speeds of up to 54Mbps, which is considerably higher than the 1 to 11 Mbps speeds of 802.11b.

||**||III|~||~||~|The biggest problem with Bluetooth beyond this is the lack of applications based on it, but Ahmed Khalil, sales manager of Toshiba Gulf, Middle East operations, is fairly optimistic about the growth in the use of it.

“Yes, 802.11b is the most widespread technology in Europe and the United States at the moment, but I believe that we will see a great many external devices with integrated Bluetooth technology, and notebooks will have a key role to play in this,” says Khlail.

Compaq has gone as far as to create its own system for its notebooks, named MultiPort, which is an interchangeable module located on the back of the notebook display panel. A MultiPort module can easily be slid into place and thus becomes an integral part of the display assembly.

A variety of both wireless and non-wireless technologies are in the midst of being offered in the MultiPort form factor, according to the company. The future scenario is hoped to be that a user can purchase a MultiPort module and wirelessly enable their unit or upgrade to a new wireless technology. The electrical interface is based on the industry standard USB (Universal Serial Bus) technology.

“MultiPort combines the antenna and radio in a single assembly which results in reduced signal loss and noise pickup and eliminates the added costs associated with internal coax cables and connectors,” explains Thomas Greve, consumer product and retail programme manager Compaq Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa. “Its location on the display panel cover improves receive-signal-strength and reduces noise pick-up from the base of the notebook. The self-shielding effects of the display greatly reduce the possibility of RF susceptibility of the various subsystems in the base of the notebook.”

The additional value of such new technology is possibly of most concern to consumers, given that wireless is becoming more stable. Most manufacturers admit that buyers can expect to pay a little more than usual for wireless capability.

“It does add some cost,” says Greve. “For the wireless LAN, the user organisation will also have to consider the cost of installing access points. If it is a new building a wireless LAN is probably cheaper to install than running cables all over the place and it is much easier and cost effective to add new users.”

Mohan states that the price hike is generally 7 to 12% for Acer; Farid describes it as around $100; DTK comments on a “premium level of pricing” and Toshiba comments that prices would “decrease in time.” Therefore, a slight cost increase, and for what seems like a lot more. What can certainly be concluded is that wireless capability is being increasingly seen as a vital part of the future’s more powerful notebooks.

They will clearly offer more flexibility and freedom. Form the business point of view, DTK's Hussain outlines a series of benefits business users will garner from the new line of machines: increased productivity, through workers’ ease of movement; ease of modifying existing networks; maximisation of resources through the networking of essential files, data and equipment and through saving Internet access costs as well as cost effectiveness through the reduction of cabling and network infrastructure. Although the initial costs are high, wireless LANs are easy to install, redesign and upgrade. ||**||

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