Does Bluetooth bite, or just suck?

Bluetooth: myth and reality. Personally, I blame the 'Tomorrow's World' syndrome. We are so techno-psyched that as soon as some...

Bluetooth: myth and reality. Personally, I blame the 'Tomorrow's World' syndrome. We are so techno-psyched that as soon as some new technology is mooted, our trend spotters go on a binge - the world and how it works will be dramatically changed imminently by the 'latest buzzword'.

'Bluetooth' equals 'latest buzzword', and it has suffered just this fate. It is new, it is dramatic, it could change things, it is coming - but hang on, it's not here yet. On the surface, it sounds wonderful: a ubiquitous, standard short range radio connection between electronic devices. No need to have wires trailing everywhere; no need to plug the laptop into the Lan; no need to plug the mobile phone into the laptop. In fact, when you think about it, we could have Bluetooth devices in all of our domestic appliances automatically sending out maintenance messages to the supplier, or even restocking the fridge and larder.

It's time, perhaps, to forget the hype and get back to the basics of Bluetooth. What is it? Where are we now? What is IBM doing? Where, realistically, are we going?

In the early 1990s, Ericsson was investigating the use of multi-communicators connected to the cellular network via cellular telephones. The last link in the connection between a communicator and the cellular network would be a short-range radio link to the phone - and this, in 1994 led to the start of a study into the feasibility of a low-power, low-cost radio interface between mobile phones and their accessories.

As this project progressed, it became clear that there was no limit to the kinds of application that could use a short-range radio link. Cheap, short-range radios would make wireless communication between portable devices economically feasible.

By 1997 Ericsson had realised that this was not a technology that it could bring to market alone - it needed the direct involvement of the manufacturers of the devices that could be linked. So Ericsson approached a number of major suppliers in order to raise interest in its new technology. By early 1998 five promoters had formed a special interest group. The initial promoters were Ericsson, Nokia, IBM, Toshiba, and Intel. On May 20, 1998, this new Bluetooth Consortium announced itself - and Bluetooth - to the world.

The Bluetooth name comes from Harald Blaatand (Danish for Bluetooth) II, King of Denmark 940-981, and grandson of King Ethelred of England. His claim to fame, and relevance to wireless comms, is that he was a famous wireless communicator - and had a penchant for blueberries.

Bluetooth is a low power radio technology operating in the 2.4 GHz ISM - industrial, scientific, medical - band (chosen because it offers worldwide availability with relatively little existing use). It is short range (up to 10 metres, although 100 metres may be possible using higher power).

Each Bluetooth unit has a unique identity. Equipment enabled with Bluetooth technology automatically searches the vicinity for other Bluetooth-compliant equipment. On contact, information is exchanged allowing the systems to determine whether or not to establish a connection.

If a connection is made, we have a piconet - a collection of devices connected via Bluetooth technology in an ad hoc fashion. A piconet starts with two connected devices, such as a portable PC and cellular phone, but may grow to eight connected devices (each of which could be simultaneously active in a different piconet). All Bluetooth devices are peer units and have identical implementations. However, when establishing a piconet, one unit will act as a master, and the other(s) as slave(s) for the duration of the piconet connection. All devices have the same physical channel defined by the master.

At this first encounter, the Bluetooth devices transmit a personal identification number (PIN). After that, no further identification process is necessary.

But it's not all plain sailing. There are countless problems in developing a worldwide standard. First of all, there are different driving forces. In Europe, the ubiquitous mobile phone will drive the Bluetooth market. But mobile phones are less entrenched in North America, and there the driving force may be the need for office synchronisation. In Japan the drive may be the consumer market and sub-notebooks. As a result, the temptation to develop proprietary methods for local markets is strong and must be resisted.

The first few applications for Bluetooth will be driven by commerce. Examples include:

File Transfer - this is important for today's 'road warrior', who wastes time connecting laptop to the Lan - and probably saves time by omitting the backups. With Bluetooth, the connection is immediate and seamless, and the backup will be automated.

Lan Access - again, ideal for the road warrior, this use would allow the mobile worker to enter the office, connect to the Lan merely being in the office, and use the laptop as if it were a Lan workstation.

Synchronisation - One of the big problems today is synchronising personal information between Lan, laptop, and PDA. Diaries, address books, and notes, all tend to get confused because of the effort of connecting everything together, or re-keying data into different devices. Bluetooth will solve this.

Multi-use telephone - A Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone becomes a many splendoured thing. It is, of course, a standard mobile phone. It provides the link between your other Bluetooth devices and the WWW (whole wide world). And it could act as a walkie-talkie (that is, no charge) link to similar phones nearby (as in the next or nearby room). But there are international tariff problems

Headset - Dubbed the 'ultimate' headset, such a device has innumerable possibilities. The same headset could communicate to your walkman in one pocket and your mobile phone in another (without cables!). Or your laptop on the seat beside you. It is, for now at least, technically difficult for voice recognition software to convert the words transmitted by radio from the headset to the laptop to ASCII, but it would work in the other direction. If you are going by rail to a meeting in Paris and need to read a long document on the way, let Bluetooth deliver it to your ears without fuss, wires, papers, or any disturbance to fellow passengers.

The long term future for Bluetooth is the migration - or perhaps convergence is the better word - from the office to everyday life. The potential is more easily understood if we understand a new concept; the personal area network.

Nick Hunn, technical manager, TDK Systems Europe, describes it thus: 'Personal Area Networking is not cogently defined, as are Lans and Wans. Today it's a concept to describe how we will operate in the future. But it's a concept that demands consideration, as the more it is examined, the more it makes sense, not just for the office, but for today's lifestyle...

Now, says Hunn, imagine personal area network where all devices like pagers, digital cameras and PDAs, can interconnect without cables via Bluetooth.

'Bluetooth will cut the cables. In doing so it will set free the mobile worker, and enable millions more to stay in touch wherever they are. Personal Area Networking will not become an acronym for a new type of technology, it will change the very way we work.'l

IBM and Bluetooth

The simple fact is that Bluetooth has been hijacked by hype. It was originally predicted that the first products would be shipping in 1999. But at a plug-fest (a meeting of developers to test products and interoperability) in November 1999, nothing worked. More recently at a second plug-fest in Monterey, March 2000, things started to look a bit better. Details are hard to glean (for obvious commercial reasons), but one delegate commented: 'companies emerged looking fairly upbeat, with chip designers claiming interoperability with each other.'

Now we have predictions of products in September 2000. Christmas is more likely, but could still be optimistic.

It's a start, but there's still a long way to go. IBM, as one of the founding promoters, has thrown its weight behind the project. The main problem right now is 'interoperability', and IBM has been a driving force behind the standards involved. The current standard is Bluetooth 1.0b. The next version is due in September 2000. Version 1.1 incorporates 76 major changes, and concentrates on this problem of interoperability.

IBM is now working with TDK to develop PMCIA cards for the ThinkPad. This will undoubtedly be one of the first serious products to market. Meanwhile, it is worth bearing in mind IBM's own position: 'Imagine an office, your personal office, that's cable-less. Then imagine that when you walk into your office you're automatically connected to all the office peripherals and devices - your printer, scanner, keyboard, mouse and your network. Well, it's not just your imagination. The enabling technology is here.' It's just the products that aren't...

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