CES: Wireless on Parade

Connectivity will reign at this year's massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, starting Thursday. More than ever, the focus of the world's largest electronics fest will be on allowing users to access popular applications and services -- mobile voice and instant messaging, music, and video -- from anywhere, in the home and on the move.

By Friday, like this reporter, you'll be absolutely sick of catchphrases like the "connected home" and "digital living room." But that doesn't negate the fact that your den -- stained sofa and all -- is the next major area of competition for major service providers like Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), software firms like Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), and consumer electronics giants such as Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE)

The digital home invasion is likely to be one of the topics that Microsoft's Bill Gates will cover in his opening keynote on Wedenesday evening, for Redmond wants the PC to be nexus of this new wave in connectivity.

One of the outstanding questions of the show will be how providers connect devices in the home to new content and stream it between flat-screen TVs, stereos, PCs, and other devices.

This is where wireless comes in:

The multimedia home: It's not as sexy as the latest cellphone, but companies such as semiconductor manufacturer Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and home networking firm Belkin are pushing "cable-free USB" as a vital link in the connectivity chain.

Southern California-based Belkin has unveiled a high-speed Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 hub that doesn't require a cable from the computer to deliver data streams; although users will still need to plug devices -- MP3 players, for instance -- into the hub for connectivity.

Home gateways of every stripe will also make news at the show. Ruckus Wireless Inc. is among the firms exhibiting high-speed wireless LAN gateways intended to pipe TV and other multimedia content round the home.

Gadgets and applications: Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) has already previewed its latest attempt to break into the music download business. Today the firm announced iRadio, a subscription-based 435-channel radio service that will run over the firm's new Rokr 2 (or "Rocker" if you prefer some vowels with your brands) MP3 cellphone.

The service will move wherever you take the phone, says Motorola. It will allow you to shift seamlessly between your home stereo, car, and wherever else you happen to be. While the content is similar to satellite radio broadcasts, users must download radio "channels" onto their home computer, which they can then access on the move.

And Motorola isn't yet done; the firm has a major event scheduled at the show later this week.

There is also the prospect of more developments on the mobile email front, with new dedicated devices coming, and messaging software firms like BlackBerry and Visto Corp. both out in force at the show. Blanket coverage: Improving cellphone reception and coverage in the home is going to be a big issue in Vegas. Both Motorola and Spotwave Wireless Inc. are debuting home gateways intended to improve cellphone coverage in the home.

Wireless repeaters and gateways have long been offered for large-scale enterprise customers that want to get better signals in their offices. But this is the first time such gateways have been offered at the "prosumer" level. The firm says that its "Zen" box will cover 2,500 square feet and support all the major 3G cellular standards -- which could mean that your neighbors will get a free boost if you're living in the average New York City apartment.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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