Breaking free of toys that bind

Electronics buyers sit tight for more wireless devices - and 'spaghetti free' homes

Tangled up in yards of wiring at home and at the office? For several years, consumer-electronics experts have held up wireless technology as a panacea.

Soon your television, computer, and the like, they maintained, would be free of the cables that now take up so much space on the floors behind desks and entertainment centers.

So what's the reality?

"I'm not certain how much of the 'cable spaghetti' problem is going to be cleaned up right away," says Galen Sherk, a technology analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Even computermakers now admit: Don't get your hopes up for a cable-free world anytime soon.

"Some cables will be with us for a while, including the cable to the [PC] monitor, because there is so much information going between it and the computer," says Douglas Heintzman, manager of Strategy and Standards for computers at IBM headquarters in Somers, New York. "There are already solutions for getting rid of some cables, such as the wireless mouse or the wireless keyboard."

Certain personal digital assistants (PDAs), external speakers, digital cameras, and modems can also be linked to computers without wires.

But so far, nearly all devices have to be connected by cable.

At work, office cables are hidden behind desks, run down posts from the ceiling, snaked behind walls, or buried beneath raised floors.

"Wire management is one of the key issues in office design. All the collateral equipment that has to be connected to computers produces the black spaghetti of wires and cable," says Angus Culley, a Vancouver architect who specializes in office design. "Home offices are even worse. Walk in, and you trip over a power bar [strip]."

Architects like Mr. Culley hope technology will eventually solve their design problems.

The Bluetooth promise

A year ago, some hoped that a new technology called Bluetooth, which uses radio waves to carry data between devices, could do the job.

Bluetooth chips, designed by the Swedish phonemaker Ericsson, were built to send messages 10 feet - enough to get rid of cables between PDAs and computers.

A wireless printer was recently introduced that uses this technology. And earlier this month, Palm Inc. introduced kits designed to help licensed developers of new Palm software create Bluetooth applications.

But, broadly speaking, Bluetooth has been a flop.

"We all had high hopes for Bluetooth, but it hasn't delivered," says Mr. Sherk of Forrester Research. "It may improve when Microsoft provides an update to Windows to add Bluetooth support. That's expected in June."

Forrester says only 1 in 50 companies it interviewed for a recent survey had tried Bluetooth technology. But the standards man from IBM thinks more Bluetooth products will start to appear soon.

"We're going to solve this. We're looking at $25 to $30 chip sets quickly coming down to $5," says Mr. Heintzman. "I'm a big Bluetooth fan. Some sort of short-range, high-speed, power-efficient device is a powerful value proposition."

The 'wi-lan' solution

In addition to the home office, the TV room can present a communications mess. Everyone, it seems, has their own tale of woe with the array of remote clickers, wires, and cables. It is not at all uncommon to see one entertainment center operating with three separate remote clickers, each doing a different job.

Sherk can't understand why manufacturers of televisions, VCRs, and DVDs have made life so complicated.

"I bought a TV that came with a three-foot-wide poster outlining all the various connections," he says. "Why do I have to deal with all this?"

One way to get rid of some wires in the house is through local wireless networks, known in the trade as "wi-lan."

Forrester Research says this technology has been accepted by more and more businesses, and is set to conquer the home. It means that different computers in the same house can use a wireless connection to log on to the Internet through one high-speed telephone connection.

Solutions to the sea of cables in the modern home can't come soon enough for architect Culley. "We spend so much time hiding wires and cables. If technology can get rid of them, we can spend time and money dealing with other design issues."

A crowded spectrum

Like the paperless office, a world totally free of cables may never truly arrive.

But if the full range of household components were to become wireless, some electronics consumers may wonder if that could lead to another kind of overcrowding.

That's a very real possibility, experts say, especially as each new electronic device claims a portion of the radio spectrum known as the 2.4-gigahertz band.

"The more devices you put in, the greater the potential for conflict," says Heintzman. "For instance, there are a lot of things operating on the 2.4 GHz band, from new long-range telephones, Bluetooth devices, and those new family walkie talkies."

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