Infrared data links broaden market

Dec. 1, 1998
Whether it is a notebook computer, hand-held PC, or new digital cellular telephone, you may have used an appliance with an in fra red (IR) data link. Also called IR transceiver modules, these devices consist of an IR light-emitting diode, PIN photodiode receiver, and support circuitry and are becoming increasingly popular for two-way wireless data transfer.

Infrared data links broaden market

Brian O`Rourke

Whether it is a notebook computer, hand-held PC, or new digital cellular telephone, you may have used an appliance with an in fra red (IR) data link. Also called IR transceiver modules, these devices consist of an IR light-emitting diode, PIN photodiode receiver, and support circuitry and are becoming increasingly popular for two-way wireless data transfer.

Such data links were first used in scientific calculators beginning in the late 1980s. As the number of applications for two-way IR data transfer began to grow, several companies came together to agree on a standard that would allow interoperability between competing devices. In 1993 this group, the Infrared Data Association (IrDA), chose the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Serial Infrared standard as the basis for its first protocol, IrDA 1.0, which allowed data-transfer rates up to 115.2 kbit/s. In 1995 the group introduced a Fast Infrared (FIR) protocol, IrDA 1.1, that allowed data-transfer rates up to 4 Mbit/s.

There are 16 manufacturers of IR data links worldwide, including six who have entered the market over the last 12 months. The top five are HP, IBM, Novalog, Sharp, and Vishay Telefunken (formerly TEMIC).

The market for these data links is expected to grow from 19.8 million units in 1997, to 105.5 million units in 2002--a compound annual growth rate of 39.7% (see figure). The largest application for IR data links is the notebook PC market. Other promising applications include hand-held PCs, digital still cameras, and cellular telephones.

The notebook-computer category includes portable PCs in laptop, notebook, and subnotebook configurations. This market has been more heavily penetrated by IR data links than any other. Nearly all computers in this category have IR links, and the vast majority of those have FIR links. It was the rapid adoption of IR links by notebook-computer manufacturers that produced a viable market by creating a very-high-volume application.

The top five laptop computer manufacturers are Toshiba, Compaq, IBM, Fujitsu, and Dell. Approximately 15 million notebook computers were sold worldwide in 1997, and 97% of them had IR data links. With the penetration of this application approaching 100%, further market growth in IR data links will closely follow the growth in the notebook-computer market.

The hand-held computing market consists of three segments that all use IR data links to different degrees: palm-size PCs, hand-held PCs, and expandable organizers. The top manufacturers include 3Com/Palm Computing, Sharp, HP, Psion, Philips and Casio. Only Serial Infrared (115.2 kbit/s) data links are seen in the hand-held device market.

The largest segment in hand-held computers is palm-size PCs, which are usually pen-based computers that have distinctive operating systems and hardware and software standards. In 1998, machines based on a new Windows CE 2.0 platform for the palm-size market were introduced to challenge the predominance of Palm Computing products.

Hand-held PCs are the second largest segment of this market. This segment is represented by machines that comply with the Microsoft Windows CE platform--they have a keyboard and a 640 ¥ 240 monochrome or color screen. Infrared data links were quite common in this segment in 1997, more so than in either palm-size PCs or expandable organizers. In fact, on the higher end of the hand-held PC spectrum, products are as closely related to subnotebook PCs as they are to lower-end hand-held products.

Expandable organizers are keyboard-based products that act as schedulers, organizers, and very basic computers and can be expanded to add memory and functionality. The Sharp Wizard is the leading product in this category. Infrared data links have been expanding their presence in this market over the last two to three years.

Overall, the hand-held-device market saw IR data-link penetration of just greater than 40% in 1997.

Digital still cameras are a growing application for IR data links. Approximately 2.3 million digital still cameras were shipped worldwide in 1997, and serial IR data links could be found in nearly 20% of them.

The top five manufacturers in this market are Kodak, Olympus, Epson, Casio, and Sony. Kodak and Sony have been among the leaders in this industry in incorporating IR data links into their cameras. Casio released its first digital camera with an IR data link in early 1998. Epson and Olympus have not yet incorporated IR links into their digital cameras.

Digital photography is moving rapidly toward higher-resolution image sensors, which is creating larger image files. If IR links are to compete as a data-transfer technology in this market, manufacturers will have to take these increasing file sizes into account. Future digital still cameras are expected to incorporate fast IR and even higher rate data links to accommodate the increasing file sizes of digital images.

In addition, IR links will have to compete with other data-downloading technologies in the digital still-camera market. This includes floppy disks, memory card adapters, and printers that accept memory cards directly, without need for a PC. Because of the availability of multiple options for downloading image files for digital still cameras, IR data links will penetrate this market more slowly than others.

Serial IR data links were included in fewer than 1% of cellular phones sold in 1997. Infrared links are found only in high-end digital cellular phones from manufacturers such as Ericsson and Nokia. While currently limited to wirelessly downloading address books, the growth of IR in the cellular-phone market is dependent upon the growth in the range of IR-enabled cellular-phone applications. Downloading addresses via IR link may be a good application but it is one that could also be accomplished with a serial cable between computer and cellular phone. Newer applications may lie in the OBEX, or Object Exchange, stack of IR-link software.

The IR data-link market should undergo substantial change over the next few years. In its history, the market has offered devices with only two data rates, serial and fast IR. The next few years should see many more offerings. In late 1997, a group including Sharp, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Microsoft announced a new IR protocol called Ir Bus (also called IrDA Control), a 75-kbit/s, long-range standard for wireless home-electronics applications. In addition work is progressing on Advanced Infrared, a diffuse, high-data-rate protocol for wireless networking applications. Hewlett-Packard has also demonstrated a 16-Mbit/s IR link for very-high-data-rate applications. These new product offerings, combined with the increasing penetration of new applications, point to a bright future for the IR data-link market. o

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Demand for infrared data links is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 39.7% between 1997 and 2002.

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