Are Devices Better Dead Than Infrared?

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2001-01-22

Recently, while navigating my way through the exhibit halls at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I caught sight of a large banner for the Infrared Data Association pavilion. Now, Im no master of trade show taxonomy, but the five or so IR companies I found exhibiting on a modest patch of floor space fell a little short of what Id expect from a pavilion.

I suppose I shouldnt have been surprised—with Bluetooth being billed as the imminent panacea for short-distance wireless communications, IR has taken a beating. Many are calling IRDA the most popular failure in mobile technology—nearly every mobile computer or device carries an IR port, and yet those ports are severely underused.

IR is a short-distance, line-of-sight technology that requires users to consciously try to employ it. And although IR components are currently much cheaper than Bluetooth chips—not to mention actually available—Bluetooth works over distances of up to 30 feet, travels through walls and can function automatically.

Is IR dead? Hewlett-Packards new Omnibook 500 notebook computer has no IR port. HP product managers told me that space comes at a premium in mobile machines and they doubt most users will miss the dropped IR port.

But wait—also at CES, Palm CEO Carl Yankowski announced his companys plans to turn Palm devices into e-wallets, which execute sales transactions through a secure IR connection. With a market heavyweight like Palm on its side, maybe there are still signs of life for IR.

But I dont think that Palms IR e-purchasing plan will fly. Why should thousands of retail stores invest in IR point-of-sale equipment when the next big thing, Bluetooth, may force them to install new equipment in a year or two?

The Palm-proposed system is supposed to allow people to receive e-coupons at the point of sale. Wouldnt stores rather invest in a technology that could send me coupons while Im shopping, as well as give me access to a store directory, a catalog of whats currently in stock and maybe even Internet access so I could check my e-mail while I shop?

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