Whatever Happened to UWB?

The announcement yesterday by the WiMedia Alliance that they would hand off further development of ultra-wideband (UWB) to (most notably) the Bluetooth SIG and two other organizations, the Wireless USB Promoter Group and the USB Implementers Forum, and then go out of business seemingly indicates that UWB is in trouble, and it well may be. An article in Network World from last fall noted a whole bunch of challenges, including the failure of at least one market player, WiQuest, competition from other technologies, and failure to meet cost and performance targets. Performance testing did in fact reveal a big gap between claims (480 Mbps for WiMedia-based WUSB) and reality. I pretty much wrote most of this off as typical of early technology and market development, where (a) too many start-ups always get funded, and some do indeed fail, (b) competition from other technologies is always a factor, especially in market opportunities holding a lot of promise, (c) costs are always too high until volume manufacturing kicks in, and (d) performance is always seriously overstated by marketers who either don't get it, intentionally mislead customers, and otherwise don't earn their salaries.

But it may very well be that UWB is in trouble. Early (which is to say current and contemporary) products aimed at the HDTV video-link market are expensive. Again, that's OK; early adopters are willing to pay more. But without some volume application to get component costs down, it will be hard to get to a volume market. Many thought wireless USB would be that app, but performance has been weak and the solution regardless does not address key applications like memory keys that have no wireless component. And, finally, I'm expecting WPANs based on Wi-Fi to replace UWB and Bluetooth in keyboards, mice, and related devices oveer time. This possibility, too, is in its early days, but it appears to me, anyway, that Wi-Fi will be a key player in the RFID, machine-to-machine, WPAN, and video-link product opportunities going forward. The Wi-Fi Alliance has even begun working on a spec in this area. 802.11n is already well ahead of UWB on the price curve, and net performance is actually better.

Still, I'm in no way writing off UWB at this point. I expect we will see progress here over the next couple of years. But the degree of success that we can expect from UWB may be much more constrained than many, myself included, previously thought.

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