Few IT managers will be thinking of spending serious money on Bluetooth, but those who choose to ignore the wireless mobile phone technology could be leaving themselves open to a host of technical and security problems.
Many devices, from mobile phones to personal digital assistants and laptops, now have Bluetooth capability as standard, which means there are a lot of Bluetooth signals floating around the office.
Admittedly, Bluetooth does not have the same range as a wireless Lan, but people sitting at their desks will be in range of a Bluetooth port on their laptops. They will also be in range of a wireless Lan access point, and Bluetooth is notorious for interfering with wireless Lan transmissions.
Version 1.2 of the Bluetooth specification is intended to reduce this interference and address a major security problem. Devices using version 1.1 are not working to that standard and it may be some time before most use version 1.2.
"IT managers should look at individuals in their companies who have Bluetooth devices and use them in the office," said Howard Dulany, segment marketing manager of IBM's PC division, at this year's World Bluetooth Congress in Amsterdam. He said users need a policy to deal with the problems in existing Bluetooth devices. "They need to ask if they want to allow Bluetooth and if they are comfortable with it."
Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, said, "Bluetooth products will come into the office and they will have to be dealt with. You can choose the ostrich approach or the education approach. IT managers should understand the technology in order to make the right business decisions."
The other policy is to be proactive and start looking at how Bluetooth can benefit a network. So far, not many have taken this route. In a survey of enterprises across 11 European countries earlier this year, only 9% of companies were using Bluetooth, although another 22% were planning to do so in the next 12 to 18 months.
Michael Wall, an industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan, which conducted the survey, said businesses were not sure why they wanted Bluetooth and were waiting for new applications.
"The applications are out there," Wall said. "Enterprises need to learn about them because they could show a clear return on investment. Also, many managers have had a poor early experience with Bluetooth and this still affects their view. But interoperability difficulties are no longer a problem."
In the office, Bluetooth has the potential to let staff use their mobile phones as cordless phones linked to the PBX, as well as the original idea for Bluetooth of connecting wireless headsets.
Take this one step further and it can be used as a tracking device for personnel, an application being tested in the Danish parliament, where MPs and their assistants use Bluetooth mobile phones and the building contains a huge Bluetooth network.
There are facilities to turn off the phones automatically when in meetings or voting booths, or divert them to secretaries or assistants. They can also be prioritised so that some calls are always let through, no matter the location of the MP.
Simpler applications include the wireless mouse and linking personal printers. It is also a straightforward technology for synchronising diaries and address books between PDAs and PCs.
Although the short range makes it difficult for hackers to break into such a link, it is possible. "Bluetooth is not inherently insecure but IT managers need to ensure it is being used in a secure way," said Wall. One way would be to insist that when devices become available, all Bluetooth users switch to version 1.2.
"There are some features in 1.2 that will be significant for corporate users," said McCamon. "Curing the interference problem makes it easier to integrate Bluetooth than wireless Lan and it is more secure."
But he warned that some Bluetooth devices allow the security to be turned off and it is important that the IT manager is aware of this risk.
The key application for Bluetooth in businesses has been as a tool for the sales force, and not just because new legislation will stop salespeople using phones while driving. Bluetooth does create a very good hands-free kit, but it also provides a link between laptops and mobile phones.
This technology means sales people can access the company network at any time without either waiting to find a fixed-line socket, or to come in range of a wireless Lan. Although some are using wired connections to link a mobile phone and a computer, this does have a drawback for most sales force applications in that the number of connections and disconnections a day can cause the connectors to fail.
German frozen food supplier Bofrost faced this problem of potential connector failure, so it deployed Bluetooth among its sales staff. As they leave the customer and walk towards their van, the PC on which they have entered the details of the order connects automatically to a printer in the van that produces a delivery order. When they return to the depot, the van is scanned and the orders are downloaded. This reduces the billing process by three to four days and gives the company a payback period of less than four months.
Federal Express is rolling out a system in Europe and the US to give couriers real-time wireless access to customer data. When couriers enter information on to their handheld PCs it is transmitted via Bluetooth to their mobile phones and back to the office.
In Australia, Coca-Cola has given each member of its 570-strong sales team a Bluetooth-enabled notebook. The company says the main reason for this is to eliminate the maintenance and replacement of GSM cables.
So, although Bluetooth may be off the radar for most IT managers, it would be foolish to ignore it completely. Find out what it can do, find out if any of your employees are using it already for either their mobile phones or headsets and if your systems experience any interference. There are advantages to deploying Bluetooth, not just in the office, but out on the road.
- Even if your IT department does not have a policy of investing in Bluetooth, the unofficial use of such devices in the office could raise several security and interference issues
- The hype over Bluetooth applications has died down, and the technology is now successfully being used by some organisations for cordless phone capability, staff location tracking and prioritisation of incoming calls
- Bluetooth version 1.2 is intended to address security and interference issues.