Cutting the Cords

Promising steps toward eliminating that rat's nest of power and data cables

The world is becoming wireless, but I'd have a tough time convincing you of that if I let you see the ornery tangle of cables behind my desk or video system. So far, getting rid of wires has been as elusive a goal as going paperless, but help may be on the way.

Nearly every data device needs to be connected, at least some of the time, with two cables: one for electric power, a second to move data. New technologies could ultimately render both of these unnecessary. But they won't really make a dent in the problem until they mature and become ubiquitous, and that is likely to take several years.

Wireless Data Transfer

A radio technology called ultra-wideband (UWB) could replace most data cables, from the sync wire for your iPod to the video cables that connect your cable box to a wide-screen display. UWB takes advantage of the laws of physics that allow data to move at very high rates if you use a big enough swath of the electromagnetic spectrum. The catch is that UWB can interfere with every other radio signal around. So it can only be used at very low power levels, limiting its range to a few feet.

The first version of UWB to hit the market is known as Wireless USB, a replacement for the common connection port on all kinds of electronics. The first products are available from Iogear, Belkin, and D-Link—and given the prices and technical limitations, all three amount to a proof of concept. I tried out Iogear's $200 Wireless USB Hub & Adapter, which works more or less like a standard USB hub that lets you plug multiple devices into a single port on your computer. The difference is that it comes in two pieces: a transmitter that connects to a Windows PC, and a separate hub into which you can plug printers, disk drives, or other USB devices. You still need a power cord, so the only cable you actually get rid of is the one linking the hub to the PC. Worse, the wireless hub, unlike a standard one, needs special software installed on the computer.

This all sounds silly until you think about the potential. Some Toshiba (TOSBF) and Lenovo (LNVGY) ThinkPad laptops have wireless USB built in. There's not much for them to connect to right now. But once the transmitters are built into both computers and products like iPods and cameras, we really will eliminate that tangle of cables. For this to happen, wireless USB has to get a lot cheaper, and Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL) have to build support into their software. We may see this by 2009.

Leading the Wireless Charge

Of course, even if the data connections go wireless, there's still the nuisance of the charger cable. Startup WildCharge has an answer for that. The WildCharge pad looks a bit like a mouse pad with a dozen flat metal strips on the surface. When you put a compatible device on top, the battery is charged through tiny embedded contacts that connect to the strips.

Compatibility is the problem. WildCharge currently only works with an assortment of Motorola (MOT) Razr handsets ($90 for the pad and phone adapter, $35 for an additional adapter), though other products are in the works. You replace the Razr's battery cover with a new one and plug a little cable from the cover into the charging port on the phone.

Again, using the WildCharge for a single device saves little trouble at considerable cost. The benefits would come only if the technology were widely adopted and built into devices so that one WildCharge could handle your camera, music player, phone, and anything else. This doesn't require any technical breakthroughs but would hinge on the acceptance of a standard by manufacturers who have profited handsomely by flooding the world with dozens of incompatible AC adapters.

Still, the idea that you could download pictures from your camera just by bringing it near your computer, then recharge it by setting it down on the desk is compelling. Not to mention the relief of not having to hunt for the right charger or sync cable. I can't wait.

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