All systems GO for Bluetooth

After all the hype, the Bluetooth short-range wireless data technology is here, with a variety of companies selling PC cards to allow users to take advantage, says Antony Savvas

Bluetooth is the open source technology that allows a variety of devices, such as PCs, laptops, mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and printers, to communicate with each other without cables or hard wiring.

Small numbers of users can also use the technology to create their own "personal area network". For instance, a group of people equipped with laptops could view and store the presentation being run on a single laptop using Bluetooth.

Data can be sent at between 750 kilobits per second to 1 megabit per second across distances of up to 100m, using unlicensed radio frequencies. Such a solution is ideal for quickly changing organisations, in terms of office location and layout, and for mobile workers who only use an office part-time and who want quick connections to the Internet or corporate e-mail.

Jeff Parker, technical director at ICL e-innovations, says of Bluetooth's capabilities, "It is estimated that there could be 34 million Bluetooth-enabled laptops by the end of 2003."

He advises, "Windows 2000 will support Bluetooth in the way it communicates with other devices so early adopter organisations should be thinking about using it in their infrastructure."

A Bluetooth-enabled laptop could also take advantage of the forthcoming Bluetooth networks in public places like airports. A user would communicate with a Bluetooth base station device at the airport, which would allow the laptop to gain access to the Internet via the airport's Bluetooth server.

Madge Networks subsidiary Red-M is one of the companies selling server products into this market, and claims the first installations will soon be announced.

Companies including Xircom and Digianswer are providing Bluetooth PC card solutions, and others, like TDK Systems, are set to follow.

While the first PC cards are mainly aimed at the laptop computer market, the rapidly growing PDA market is next on the agenda.

Ericsson, the original developer of the open-source Bluetooth, has already announced that it will have its first Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones available by the end of the year, to allow wireless connection to the Internet.

Toshiba is boasting about being the first laptop computer manufacturer to be able to sell Bluetooth PC cards. Toshiba's Bluetooth cards are being supplied by Digianswer, a Motorola-owned company.

The initial market penetration of Bluetooth is expected to be small, mainly because most consumers haven't heard of it, but the first users are expected to be corporate. Toshiba says it is still in the "seeding phase" and that it only expects to sell cards "in the hundreds every month" to begin with. The average price of the cards is about £130.

However, Toshiba is also working on an embedded Bluetooth solution, which could be available on some machines as early as the first quarter next year, so users should check the plans of their suppliers first, to make sure they are not needlessly investing in large amounts of cards.

What is essential, however, for any company looking to take advantage of Bluetooth, is to test it first to see what applications are possible. The price of a few PC cards should, therefore, be digestible.

Xircom, which signed a joint development deal with Ericsson this June, hasn't been too far behind Digianswer on PC card availability, though, and it claims to have the first Bluetooth solution which can be used with a PDA - to be used on the Handspring Visor.

It also has a solution for its own "sub-PDA", the Xircom Rex, which is a credit card-sized tool mainly aimed at synchronisation of data with a fixed-line PC or laptop.

The Handspring has the edge on more established rivals like the Palm, because it is one of the few PDA devices with an expansion slot to take a Bluetooth card.

Until now, the Handspring has mainly been available in the US, but it was recently introduced to Europe, and its Bluetooth capabilities may make it more attractive than its more established rivals, regarding wireless capabilities.

To get round the problem of having no expansion slots, Palm has announced it will initially offer Bluetooth via special attachable casings with Bluetooth embedded.

Despite some potential technical problems, Bluetooth is now clearly a solution users can use, instead of just read about.

Bluetooth roadmap

1998: Bluetooth initiative launched by Ericsson and others

1999: Bluetooth products promised by end of year, but fail to appear despite being given high profile at Comdex and other major shows

2000: February: Cebit show sees Bluetooth given another platform

2000: Summer: Ericsson promises a Bluetooth-enabled headset which can communicate with a mobile phone. However, the product does not appear commercially

2000: Autumn: first Bluetooth PC cards appear for laptop computers

2000: Winter: first Bluetooth mobile phones expected from Ericsson

2001: Spring: first Bluetooth embedded laptops expected and Cebit set to be real launchpad for Bluetooth-enabled PDAs

2001: Summer: Bluetooth products expected to start reaching critical mass in market

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