Is there any bite in Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a new short-range radio technology on a chip that enables devices such as laptops, phones, printers, pagers and PDAs...

Bluetooth is a new short-range radio technology on a chip that enables devices such as laptops, phones, printers, pagers and PDAs to communicate seamlessly without wires.

Born out of one Danish King Harald Blaatand II (940-985 AD), the grandson of King Ethelred of England, the origins of Bluetooth are related to Harald's capability as a wireless communicator and predeliction for blueberries (Blaatand being the Danish for Blue Tooth). No-one of course has made any reference to Ethelred's nickname 'unready', but that has until recently certainly been the status of Bluetooth products and interoperability.

Now a book has been published: Bluetooth Revealed: An Insider's Guide to the Open Specification for Global Wireless Communications. Written by Brent Miller, senior software engineer in IBM's pervasive computing division, the book is published by Prentice Hall and sells online for $44.99. Co-author Chatschik Bisdikian and Miller were principal developers of the Bluetooth specification, and both are from IBM; one of the founding firms of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) along with Ericsson, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba. In December 1999 four new companies joined the SIG; 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, and Motorola. Some had made contributions to the original specification as adopter companies.

'Bluetooth refers to an open specification for a technology to enable short range wireless voice and data communications anywhere in the world,' says Miller. 'The Bluetooth SIG has produced a specification for wireless communication that's publicly available and royalty free. A truly open specification has been a fundamental objective of the SIG since its formation, to help foster widespread acceptance.'

While there are many instances of short range digital communication among computing and communications devices today - and Bluetooth is short-range wireless - much of that communication takes place over cables. These connect to many devices using a variety of connectors with many combinations of shapes, sizes, and numbers of pins. The cable mix can become a spaghetti-like burden. With Bluetooth, these devices communicate without wires over a single air interface using radio waves in the 2.4 Ghz spectrum to transmit and receive data. The 2.4 Ghz band is the industrial, scientific, medical (ISM) chunk of the spectrum, thus offering worldwide availability.

Bluetooth wireless technology is specifically designed for short-range (10 metres nominally) communications. One result of the design is low power consumption, making the technology suited for use with small portable personal devices that typically are powered by batteries.

'It's an unlicensed spectrum, available worldwide, so there's no license fee,' says Miller. 'However, there have been potential interference problems with wireless operation. For example, in this spectrum there could be interference from 802.11 wireless Ethernet, microwave ovens, and cordless phones. But studies we've done at IBM, plus anecdotal evidence, have shown performance degrades gracefully in situations where there's a lot of interference.'

Traditional lines between computing and communication environments are continually becoming less distinct. Voice is now commonly transmitted/stored digitally. Mobile phones - voice appliances - are also used for data applications, such as information access or browsing. Using voice recognition, computers can be controlled by voice, and, through voice synthesis, computers can produce audio output as well as visual output. Some wireless communication technologies are designed to carry only voice, while others handle only data traffic.

'Bluetooth makes provisions for both voice and data, and so it's ideal technology for unifying these worlds by enabling all sorts of devices to communicate using either or both of these content types,' says Miller. 'Devices that employ Bluetooth wireless communication can be used unmodified, no matter where a person might be.'

So, given the hitherto pervasive hype and product interoperability difficulties, what products are coming? Miller points to IBM announcing the new i-Series ThinkPad range which will be available 'in the fourth quarter' offering wireless Ethernet 802.11 and Bluetooth capabilities. Plus there's a Bluetooth PC card which fits existing PCs and notebooks - scheduled for October - which is set to retail at $189.

IBM worked with TDK to develop PCMIA cards for the ThinkPad.

Ken Steck, senior technology architect, embedded systems solutions, at independent wireless development community, says: 'Beyond the Bluetooth stuff in IBM's ThinkPad range there's precious little else coming out of IBM.'

'Other Bluetooth enabled products are mobile phones from Ericsson, Nokia, and Motorola,' says Miller. 'There will be network access points on walls, plus IBM's microelectronics division has seen many chip opportunities. There'll also be software and solutions applications opportunities.

'IBM is offering the Bluetooth protocol stack for Linux on the Alpha works site for anyone to use as they like,' says Miller. 'The stack is called Drekar, after the name given to the carved prows on Viking longboats. Linux was chosen because it's easy to port to other equivalent real-time environments.'

Protocol stacks for the Windows environment are being developed by Microsoft, Intel, and a partnership involving Ericsson.

'Initial product costs are likely to add $25 to bills of materials cost, so it doesn't currently lend itself to small run developments,' says Miller. 'However this cost is expected to decrease to $5 over two years.'

Continuous development is underway at Ericsson, IBM, Nokia, Toshiba, and Intel which produced the version-1 specification. Version 1.0b (hailing from December 1999) is the current standard, while work on version 2.0 is underway. The work centres around making profiles - ie how to apply the specification to accomplish a given usage case. Printing is a key area, 'but there is no work to change'. Gung ho, chaps, then is it?

Miller points out that while Bluetooth is initially a replacement for cable, 'it equally enables many new applications, such as the use of a laptop as a speakerphone, or sending digital photos over your mobile phone, or unlocking your car via your cell phone'.

What about, say five years out? Cable replacement is a given. But Bluetooth will enable users to synchronise with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and provide wireless headsets for the phone. Technology enables a lot more. Personal area networking (Pan) will arrive - collaborative applications in conference rooms, hidden computing, synchronising PDAs with desktop PCs. Location based services will find you wherever you are.

'Client-server models evolve to network/internet computing to pervasive computing, which is the extension of internet computing to access anywhere, anytime,' says Miller.

Gartner Group DataQuest research predicts there will be 250 million Bluetooth devices in use by the year 2002, and 650 million by 2005. But do remember this is virgin territory where nothing currently exists, so the figures could well be over-hyped, or indeed well short of what's going to happen. Treat it as 'finger in the air' projections. Then, is everybody really sure it's going to happen? Lessons must have been learned from the 'wapathy' surrounding wap services. Then again, these could all be the seeds being set now for a fruitful harvest five years down the track.

It could well be the original architects will rue the day they chose a relative of Ethelred the unready to brand their new concept. Equally they may be laughing all the way to the bank, via a system with a Bluetooth connection of course.

Always on wireless

Remember those predictions of mass take-up of video-on-demand, VoD? The roads of England being dug by those nasty cable men - whole towns being plunged into darkness as electricity mains cables were inadvertently severed so pipes for blown fibre could be laid. Then what? No-one wanted VoD, or near-VoD. So, millions of pounds down the track, does the same fate await mobile commerce? Will many techno-warriors, road-workers, tele-workers, geeks etc want to download video clips, film clips, football scenes, large files to mobile phones and PDAs? Nah. Not today anyway. Notebook/laptop PCs maybe. But then it's for those business geeks in airports, trains, public places, etc, trying to look important as they're 'so busy'.

What of tomorrow's wireless world where everyone is always online, and two or more client devices are used, and the key requirement is the capability of moving seamlessly between bearers. What? You're in the office and get e-mail via the Lan. Leave the office for a meeting in the conference room. E-mail carries on coming using wireless Lan technology, such as 802.11 or Bluetooth. Time for lunch. Switch off the PC and leave the office. E-mail carries on coming, this time to your mobile phone or PDA. When the notebook is next switched on, Bluetooth updates the fat client with the thin client's latest information. Synchronisation is handled automatically. Everyone is happy. Well, maybe. They're more likely to be stressed out with e-mail overload. Added to the information overload.

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