Yet Another Personal Area Network Technology

PAN technology attempting to give the boot to Bluetooth

Ozmo wants to be part of the latest round of Personal Area Network (PAN) technology, this time leveraging Wi-Fi.

Ozmo gets a lift by being partly Intel funded, and working closely with Intel on the chip giant's Cliffside development project, which allows a single Wi-Fi radio to serve two separate purposes--in this case making a network connection and serving a PAN at the same time. (Cliffside is part of a larger initiative--"Carry Small, Live Large"--to provide a laptop experience in a small but powerful mobile device.)

PANs are designed for short distance associations with a computer or handheld device; typical uses are for low-bandwidth peripherals like input devices (keyboards, mice, pens, and trackballs), synchronization with handhelds and smartphones, and audio via headsets and headphones, as well as high-bandwidth applications like streaming high-definition video, wireless computer displays, hard drive connections, and so on.

Ozmo is square in the middle of this. The idea with Cliffside in general and Ozmo's solution in particular is that a Wi-Fi radio is wasted by handling just wireless LAN traffic. What if that radio could serve two masters? It could handle a WLAN connection and act like a PAN hub for peripherals. An Ozmo spokesperson told me that while Intel is their first partner on their product--Intel will embed Cliffside technology within a year into their laptop designs--that other Wi-Fi chipmakers could work with them to develop drivers that would allow existing and new laptops to offer WLAN/PAN connections. One of Ozmo's key markets is selling chips to peripheral makers.

This technology tries to give the boot to Bluetooth, which is embedded in well over a billion devices sold to date, and is expected to be built into half a billion cell phones sold in 2008 alone, excluding the tens of millions of computers sold with Bluetooth radios. This seems like a lot of inertia for a technology that has, as its biggest problem, the difficulty of pairing two devices. (That's mostly a legacy issue: Since version 2.1 of the standard, Bluetooth devices can be paired with a simple PIN instead of the former process that took as many as 15 steps on some operating systems.)

Where Bluetooth's current 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) standards operates at 3 Mbps, Ozmo is proposing 9 Mbps for its Wi-Fi based flavor, which they claim would provide the overhead for crisper audio among other purposes. Ozmo is also claiming better battery life for peripherals relative to Bluetooth. (Another PAN technology, ultrawideband (UWB), has only barely reached the market. It can offer speeds from 100 to 500 Mbps, depending on distance, but can't yet be built into tiny, battery-powered peripherals. It's really an extension of USB, and some flavors will be sold as Certified Wireless USB.)

Ozmo's argument rests in part on the fact that Bluetooth isn't built into all the devices that have Wi-Fi; nearly all laptops are sold with Wi-Fi radios, but only a third (according to some research) have Bluetooth radios as well. With major Wi-Fi chipmakers all having in-house Bluetooth divisions or partnerships with Bluetooth chipmakers, it seems like a short-term blip that Bluetooth has an undercount compared to Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth has some tricks up its sleeve, too: Bluetooth High Speed. This hybrid mode allows a Bluetooth driver to recognize when a bulk data transfer needs to be made and switch to using a Wi-Fi adapter to handle that part. This uses Wi-Fi at its best advantage, while still preserving the typically lower power usage of Bluetooth.

It's also a bit ironic that Intel, which is pushing future devices that will contain Wi-Fi, WiMax, and possibly 3G cell data radios on a single platform, is carping that much about a second radio that shares quite a lot with Wi-Fi already.

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Glenn Fleishman

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