A touch of grey in Bluetooth's silver lining

After years of hype that promised seamless, short-range wireless connectivity among handheld devices, Bluetooth is showing signs...

After years of hype promising seamless, short-range wireless connectivity among handheld devices, Bluetooth is showing signs of having overcome some of the early problems associated with the technology. But are growing adoption and gradual technical improvements enough to save Bluetooth from being overcome by advances in wireless technology?

At first glance, technical improvements and shipment numbers look promising for Bluetooth's future.

Suppliers are shipping one million Bluetooth-enabled devices, mainly mobile phones, every week, according to Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG).

Sixty-five per cent of those Bluetooth-enabled products are being sold in Europe, with 25% shipping to Asia and 10% to the Americas, he said.

"Bluetooth is getting quite good adoption in mobile phones and even in laptops," said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at Intel.

As adoption spreads, the technology continues to improve, although some usage issues remain unresolved.

Bluetooth SIG announced on 5 November the adoption of Bluetooth Specification Version 1.2, which adds several features, including faster connections between devices and adaptive frequency hopping, which is designed to reduce interference with other wireless devices.

Devices based on the latest Bluetooth specification are expected to begin appearing on the market over the next few months, SIG said.

"In many regards, [Bluetooth's] been complex and not been well tested, so there have been a number of usage model issues around it, but those seem to be resolved," Gelsinger said.

IBM and Apple Computer are among the companies that have begun selling notebook computers offering Bluetooth connectivity, and the technology has also begun finding its way into other hardware devices.

Taiwan's LiteOn Technology has developed a Personal Media Gateway, called PMG100, which is designed to function as a single cellular gateway for a variety of portable Bluetooth-enabled devices, including a handheld messaging terminal and a phone.

Incorporating support for GSM and GPRS networks, the PMG100 will be slightly larger than a pak of cards and includes a micro-router and micro-server capabilities.

Logitech, a major supplier of cordless devices that use older 27MHz radio frequency technology, has introduced several Bluetooth devices since September.

Bluetooth, like 802.11b or Wi-Fi technology, uses frequencies in the 2.4GHz spectrum. It has become more attractive as the installed base grows and the price of chips has declined with higher volumes, according to Alexis Richard, Logitech's product marketing manager for Bluetooth systems. But he still says it is too complicated for many users.

"We know that Bluetooth still has some limitations. I think it's still for early adopters; it is not a mainstream technology yet," Richard said.

Problems will persist, but Bluetooth should become a mainstream technology, at least for simple uses, said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

Suppliers will eventually make the user experience more consistent. "It'll take a lot of calls to the customer service department and then they'll finally get it," he said.

Today, Bluetooth is reasonably easy to use between two products from the same supplier, and for some simple functions such as getting a headset to work with a phone.

But an application such as synchronising a phone or handheld device with a PC is still too complicated for the average consumer.

And then there is the issue of cost. Bluetooth remains more expensive than 27MHz technology, although the gap has narrowed over the past year, Logitech's Richard said. The estimated street price of Logitech's Bluetooth mouse is $99, compared with $69 for a similar product using 27MHz.

The extra value customers get from Bluetooth lies in the hub Logitech supplies with the mouse and a corresponding keyboard, both introduced in October. The hub, which uses a driver from Widcomm, can support a wide variety of uses, Richard said.

For example, the hub comes with software that gives a notification on the PC screen when there is a text message sent to a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. Clicking on an icon then allows the user to start exchanging text messages with the sender using the PC keyboard instead of the phone keypad.

Widcomm, the driver supplier, moved to expand the usefulness of Bluetooth devices by adding support for several profiles in a major driver upgrade in June.

The BTW (Bluetooth for Windows) 1.4 software includes profiles for interface devices such as keyboards and mice and for personal area networks such as ad hoc groups of coworkers with portable devices, according to Rajiv Kumar, co-founder and chief technology officer of Widcomm. Several other device makers, including Logitech, are using the software.

Bluetooth's future prospects are restrained by limited bandwidth of around 500Kbps, Intel's Gelsinger said.

"If I want to load images from my camera into my PC it would be extremely slow to do that over a Bluetooth connection," Gelsinger said.

This is where Bluetooth faces a challenge from emerging short-range wireless networking technologies, such as Ultra Wideband (UWB).

UWB technology was first developed in the 1980s and is used in some types of radar. More recently, the technology has been considered for high-speed, short-range wireless communications.

"We think (UWB) will have some of the same characteristics of Bluetooth, being short-range, low-power, but will be able to do it at much higher bandwidth," said Gelsinger, adding Intel believes UWB will offer bandwidth of up to 500Mbps.

Despite the great promise of UWB, there are drawbacks to the technology. One of the problems is that UWB does not have regulatory approval in many countries outside the US, according to the Ultra Wideband Working Group (UWBWG), which means that UWB-enabled devices cannot be sold or used in these countries.

"However, there is significant interest in many countries and steps are being taken to explore a number of foreign markets and regulatory processes," the UWBWG's website said.

At the product level, Logitech's Richard said UWB is not ready to go into products.

"We're not saying Bluetooth is the winner and that's the way it will be for the next 10 years. We don't know. But today, that's the way it is," he said.

Even if UWB does replace Bluetooth at some point in the future, vestiges of the technology could remain in use for many years to come, Gelsinger said.

"Our goal with [UWB] would be to use all of the software that Bluetooth has developed, all of the upper layer stack of the protocol, and just put a new physical layer underneath it," he said.

However, not everyone believes that Bluetooth will be replaced by UWB.

Gartner's Dulaney said the greater bandwidth offered by UWB is not necessary for most of the applications Bluetooth was designed to handle. In addition, many Bluetooth-enabled devices do not make full use of the bandwidth that Bluetooth offers.

Suppliers should focus on improving the usability of Bluetooth instead of looking to new technologies as a replacement for Bluetooth.

Sumner Lemon and Stephen Lawson write for IDG News Service

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