Cutting Loose: Infrared Eliminates the Need for Cables

A growing number of notebook computers, PCs and printers come with built-in infrared ports. With solid standards in place, infrared technology is poised to ease the lives of government workers who travel or work from home.

Infrared (IR) technology may break the last ties that bind today's mobile workers.

Those ties are the cables and connectors that notebook users must haul around if they want to transfer files to another notebook, a desktop PC or a printer. Not only are these accessories a hassle to carry around, they are also easily lost or broken. In addition, some of these devices are proprietary, giving rise to incompatibilities.

But as more manufacturers build IR ports into their products, government users of handheld and notebook computers can start leaving the cables and connections behind.

Virtually all IR ports today adhere to a standard approved by the Infrared Data Association (IrDA), which specifies a speed of 115 kilobit/sec. Therefore, any device with an IR port can talk to any other device with an IR port. This ability to easily connect different types and brands of devices is one of the key advantages of IR technology, according to John LaRoche, executive director of IrDA.

IR promises to be nirvana for the true road warrior. For a person who carries a notebook, a pager, a cellular phone and a pocket organizer, IR would be the only standardized way to transfer information among all those devices, said Matt Cuson, marketing manager for portable products at Adaptec Inc., which makes IR adapters.

Because IR is wireless and standardized, it creates an environment for ad hoc file transfer, Cuson said. For example, an IR-enabled printer in a Kinko's Copies store could accept data from any notebook or handheld that had an IrDA-compliant IR port. Eventually, telephone makers could incorporate IR ports so that public phones could accept a fax from any IrDA-compliant notebook or pager.

Several handheld devices incorporate IR ports, including Hewlett-Packard Co.'s 200LX, Sharp's Wizard and Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton MessagePad 120. And at a manufacturer's cost of less than $5, IR ports are so inexpensive that notebook computer vendors are adding them at a feverish pace. "Every [portable computer] coming out now has an IR port in it," said Randy Giusto, manager of mobile computer research at International Data Corp. IDC predicts that by 1997 more than 90 percent of portables shipped in the United States will incorporate IR (see table).

Notebooks with IR capability are available on the General Services Administration schedule from Digital Equipment Corp., Apple and IBM Corp. The Army Portable-1 contract, open to the entire Defense Department, carries an HP palmtop with IR capability.

Despite the widespread availability of IR technology, government buyers are not specifically asking for it. "The technology is being pushed by vendors rather than being pulled by the users," Giusto said.

Although Government Technology Services Inc. carries many products that incorporate IR ports, "it doesn't appear that people are specifically buying them because of the IR features," said Tony Colangelo, director of marketing at GTSI.

That was the case with Arthur Schultz, a mechanical engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration, Des Plaines, Ill. He did not even realize his new Gateway 2000 Liberty notebook came with a built-in IR port, a desktop adapter from Extended Systems Inc. and IR file-transfer software from Puma Technology Inc. But Schultz gave the IR feature a try because the notebook does not have an internal floppy drive. It is easier for Schultz to use IR to transfer files from his notebook to his desktop PC than to hook up an external floppy drive to the notebook, he said.

Schultz had only a minor problem with a software driver when he set up his IR communications. The problem was solved by one quick tech-support call.

In the past, some users had trouble transferring files via IR, but the situation is improving. One boon for the technology is that Microsoft Corp. incorporated an IrDA driver in Windows 95 that eliminates the need for any additional driver software for IR ports. Users of Windows 3.1 can turn to TranXit, an IR file transfer and synchronization package from Puma, Santa Clara, Calif., that often comes bundled with products that have IR ports.

"We're bundled on about every IR-ready notebook and desktop that is being shipped," said Steven R. Magidson, vice president of marketing at Puma.

GTSI's Colangelo said government buyers are not aware of IR's capabilities yet because the technology just started becoming widespread in the last few months. "It's taking time to educate the federal buyer base that all this is becoming available," he said.

Although IR ports are blossoming on notebooks, printer makers are more hesitant about how to accommodate IR. As of mid-November, the only printer to offer a built-in IR port was the HP LaserJet 5P. HP also offers an IR adapter as an option on its DeskJet 340, a portable printer. Both products are available on the GSA schedule through GTSI.

One concern of printer manufacturers has been the added cost. Personal laser and ink-jet printers are fighting it out at the $399 price point, making vendors' profit margins very slim, according to Alyson Frasco, an analyst at IDC. Although it only adds a few dollars, "when you are trying to be price competitive, that's enough that if you don't need it, and there's not strong user demand, you won't do it," she said. She predicted IR will be sold as an optional adapter on printers.

Another good reason not to build in IR is the fact that putting it in one spot on the printer can make it inaccessible, depending on where the printer sits. IR ports need a line-of-sight connection. The IrDA standard specifies the IR port to work at distances of up to 1 meter (although some vendors claim a range of up to 3 meters) within a 30-degree cone (15 degrees off the center in all directions). The IR port is located on the lower left corner of the front panel of HP's LaserJet 5P. "That's fine unless the printer sits in the wrong corner of the room," which could force a notebook user into an awkward position to do a file transfer, Cuson said.

"We've received both praise and criticism about where [the IR port is located]," said Steve Meyer, product manager for the LaserJet 5P, adding that HP could change the design in the future and perhaps make it an optional adapter.

Several companies offer adapters for printers and PCs. Lexmark International Inc. offers the MarkNet IR adapter for desktop PCs and printers at a retail price of $279. Adaptec offers the AIRport series of adapters for notebooks and desktop PCs. They range in price from $89 to $189. Extended Systems Inc. offers the JetEye line of adapters for desktop PCs and for printers. They range in price from $135 to $179.

Adapters from Extended Systems are available on the GSA schedule through GTSI. In addition, GTSI sells the Adaptec models on the open market.

Whether built into the machine or offered as an additional adapter, IR's success in the market will depend on how aware people are of its capabilities. "You need to make sure you put IR where people are going to value it," Cuson said.


Harbert is a free-lance writer based in Andover, Mass.


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