Is Bluetooth still 'blue sky'?

Bluetooth promised an end to cables, but, one year on, where is it? Marc Ambasna-Jones reports

Bluetooth promised an end to cables, but, one year on, where is it? Marc Ambasna-Jones reports

Bluetooth is one of those new technologies that has captured the industry's imagination. But, like Wap, it is in danger of being over-hyped before it is ready to deliver anything tangible.

It has been more than a year now since the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) ratified its Specification 1.0, amid promises of earth-shattering products that would be appearing before the end of 2000. So, where are they?

The past year has been a difficult one for Bluetooth. Security and interference issues have been prevalent and these have yet to be resolved, according to Nick Hunn, technical manager at TDK Systems, a company that is currently working to Bluetooth-enable IBM's Thinkpad notebooks.

Suppliers - and there are lots of them - cannot release products with the Bluetooth logo because few have passed the Bluetooth qualification process. One exception is Motorola's subsidiary Digianswer. Its Type II PC card is being used by a large number of developers as a platform for demonstrating Bluetooth, and as a benchmark for developing applications. The company is also gaining momentum in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) sales through deals with the likes of IBM and Toshiba.

Much of the hesitation to push products forward for accreditation is due to a new specification that is due to be ratified at the end of November. Specification 1.1 will be the keystone of any Bluetooth products launched next year and could, in theory, make all products developed under Specification 1.0b obsolete unless their software is upgradable.

Madge Networks subsidiary Red-M has announced plans to launch a Bluetooth server in November, aimed primarily at applications developers working in vertical market sectors.

According to Simon Gawne, vice-president of marketing and business development at Red-M, very shortly there will be a large installed base of Bluetooth-enabled peripherals such as cameras, printers, and PC cards. "We hope to leverage this large base of edge devices by providing the structure for a controlled environment within an office - or any building, really," he says.

This doesn't mean you will find Red-M's server on the shelves of PC World this Christmas but it will be bundled with applications aimed at providing a Bluetooth infrastructure at airports, railway stations and in shops.

The server is software-upgradable, so it will be able to accept the new Bluetooth specification, says Gawne, keen to dismiss fears that the server might become instantly obsolete.

Hunn says that all products released in the next couple of months must be software-upgradable, unless suppliers deliberately want to shoot themselves in the foot.

"There are 200 major changes from Specification 1.0b to 1.1," he explains. "And that includes everything from the radio spec up to the software stack and applications. This means that anyone bringing out a product now that is not upgradable is silly because there won't be a stable and interoperable Bluetooth platform for another 12 months."

So, is Bluetooth just another buzzword to be lumped into the same pending basket as Wap, GPRS and mobile commerce?

Perhaps it is, but always remember that the combined force of all these technologies represents the future of mobile computing and communications.

In general, analysts appear to be keen on the technology and have made optimistic predictions for Bluetooth-enabled product shipments and market values. Analyst firm Merrill Lynch claims there will be 2.2 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices shipped by 2005, while Frost and Sullivan estimates that total revenues for Bluetooth will rocket to $699.2m (£490m) by 2006 - a compound annual growth rate of 63.4%.

But where does all this leave the technology? Will we have to wait another six months before seeing Bluetooth products infiltrate our everyday lives?

The answer is no because, despite the problems and the potential future changes, a number of suppliers have already jumped ahead and will launch products in November and December.

The range of Bluetooth applications being talked about at the moment is diverse. As well as the wireless desktop, where a user can print, get Internet access, download pictures from cameras and operate a keyboard and mouse without any wires, there is also synchronisation with mobile devices.

Major uses will be the cable-free transfer of information within the office, such as using a handheld computer to send and receive e-mails or pull contact details out of Microsoft Outlook on a desktop PC.

On the hardware side, apart from Red-M, Ericsson has promised to deliver its Bluetooth headset for mobile phone use as well as a Bluetooth adaptor for its handsets before the year is out. The company has already announced its R520 triple-band handset with GPRS, Bluetooth, Wap and High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD), and has a number of other home-control-related products in the pipeline.

RTX Telecom is producing a Bluetooth USB adaptor for desktop PCs, and 3Com is also working on USB adaptor and wall and ceiling-mounted transmitters, as well as adaptor PC cards for notebooks.

Keeping sight of what the technology can do to ease everyday burdens is important. Bluetooth is not without limitations - or competition.

The IEEE's 802.11b wireless standard seen by many as a suitable networking technology, although it is not without its problems. The future here will probably rest with related technologies, such as HiperLan2 which can boast greater bandwidth and stability.

In businesses, Bluetooth will infiltrate in a number of ways. Currently, the most obvious use is for mobile phone connectivity, although a wider range of applications, such as Lan access, will start to emerge during the course of next year. Until then, Bluetooth will continue to develop as a personal networking medium for connecting mobile units to their desk-bound siblings.

For the IT department, Bluetooth is destined to remain another wait-and-see technology. It has great potential but it is currently too complicated to put together, which means it is vulnerable to long delays in design and production.

Wise managers will wait until next year, when products based on the new specification will emerge and should prove to be more stable. In the meantime, the market will gradually grow as most of the early products find themselves in the hands of the gadget-hungry few.

What is Bluetooth?

At its most basic, Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows devices including PCs, printers, mobile phones and laptops to "talk" to each other without using cables. It uses radiowaves and transmits voice and data across the unlicensed ISM (industrial, scientific, and medical) band at 2.4GHz.

The Bluetooth standard has been developed by a number of leading mobile and PC technology companies including Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba. Other prominent members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) include Microsoft, 3Com and Lucent, while the total number of companies now supporting Bluetooth on a worldwide basis stands at about 1,880.

At the moment, Bluetooth transmitters have a range of about 10m, although this is variable depending on the environment. The signal range can be extended by using a series of interlinked base stations.

Specification 1.0b is currently being upgraded to version 1.1, which is due for release at the end of this month. This means that any products released over the next couple of months will need a software upgrade to be compatible with products launched next year.

Benefits of Bluetooth

For most people, having quick and immediate access to mobile devices without having to connect using wires is a huge benefit. One obvious application is that Bluetooth will enable mobile phone, notebook PC and personal organiser users to access applications, such as e-mail and voice calls, on the move.

It also enables allocated devices to "talk" to each other, so that information such as contacts and calendar are constantly synchronised between devices.

PC users will be able to connect to a network or a printer from anywhere within radio range to a base station or radio link. Images from digital cameras can be downloaded instantly onto a PC either directly or maybe to another user via mobile phone.

For presentations, equipment such as microphones, amplifiers and speakers can be connected without having to worry about the limits of the connecting cables or having to deal with a mass of proprietary cables and connectors, although currently Bluetooth has a variable range

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