It's a wireless world

The mobile world is poised to embrace Bluetooth - but the cost must come down if it is to feature in mass-market consumer...

The mobile world is poised to embrace Bluetooth - but the cost must come down if it is to feature in mass-market consumer production.

Everyone in the wireless world has heard about Bluetooth by now. It's a wireless networking technology, developed by Ericsson, designed for short range (up to 10m) medium-speed data and voice connections.

It's a replacement for the cable between the businessperson's phone and PDA, or the infrared link between the TV and remote control. The technology got off to a good start and there are some 2,500 companies in the Bluetooth special interest group (BSIG).

It has had some delays, however, and it was over a year behind the original schedule when it came to market. As the first devices are coming to the shops, a host of new concerns are surfacing: concerns about the interoperability of devices, spectrum utilisation, costs and security.

With the slow take-up and list of concerns, one might ask if it's worth bothering with Bluetooth at all. But if Bluetooth takes off, it could spread to virtually every appliance at home and work, from cars to gas meters, enabling the creation of wholly new networks: the medical monitor bracelet on your wrist communicating via your phone to the medical centre, the electronic shopping list on your PDA talking to the supermarket shelves and so on. So, what is the reality?

Kick-starting the market
The Bluetooth mass market is much farther away than when it was first conceived. Earlier this year, Cahners In-Stat Group lowered its previous forecast of Bluetooth shipments by a third, down to 955 million units in 2005.

The original market entry strategy, assuming that mobile phones would be the main devices to kick-start Bluetooth in the mass market, may well be unfounded. It may be that adding the wireless connectivity to laptops, handhelds and specialist devices for vertical markets (such as health) becomes the driver instead.

Even if new devices come to market quickly, though, the concerns expressed by industry observers are also real. Security, to pick one example, is far from organised in the Bluetooth world.

Marketing departments are keen to present the frequency hopping built in to Bluetooth as an anti-interference device as a security device as well, but it just isn't.

End-to-end security is some way off: most of the building blocks are there, but it's complicated and inconvenient to configure. But what may happen-as many vendors undoubtedly are hoping-is that the convenience Bluetooth offers will make security a back-burner issue until someone is burned, by which time the issue will have been addressed.

Then there's the issue of price: industry wisdom says that Bluetooth is still too expensive to install in consumer devices that are meant to be low cost. Last summer, semiconductor suppliers were promising $5 Bluetooth chips by the end of this year.

That would mean that the technology would add perhaps $25 or $30 to the price of a Bluetooth-equipped product. But prices have stayed stubbornly high. Having noted these problems, it's important to point out that Bluetooth does actually work.

We have a variety of devices in our office and have been experimenting with them (in various business scenarios) to help ensure that our advice to clients is founded in reality. The basic set up (eg, using a laptop to get an Internet connection through a nearby mobile phone) works, though the connections are slow.

The Bluetooth laptop interface (a PC card) works much better than other interfaces, which may be a reflection of the 'beta' quality of the software: developers have far more experience writing device drivers and software stacks for the Windows environment than for other environments.

Thus, two laptops (with the same manufacturers' cards in them can (with a bit of fiddling about in Windows) talk to each other, and it's possible to imagine using them to swap files with a colleague on the train.

Trying to set up reliable connections between different manufacturers' devices has, however, remained difficult. A limiting factor in any potential near-term roll-out in a real business environment is the sheer complexity and user-unfriendliness of Bluetooth architectural planning and deployment.

A device, for example, might ship with client software that cannot be reconfigured if you want to do something else with it. One particular problem in our office is that interference between lower-powered Bluetooth devices and higher-powered 802.11 devices (we have a couple of Apple Airports providing wireless LAN connectivity throughout the office) significantly reduces the range and speed on Bluetooth connections.

Hopefully, interoperability will improve as the Bluetooth hardware becomes more sophisticated and the software stacks are improved to be more resilient to this kind of interference.

When all of the elements of Bluetooth come together to create the infrastructure for short range, lower power and inexpensive 'ad hoc networking', where will it really make a difference? The answer must be personal.

Getting connected
Bluetooth's flexibility means that it could be used to provide a variety of different ad hoc networks. These could be used for simple cable replacement, voice, limited LAN access in an office environment and ad hoc peer-to-peer interconnection: passing a file to a colleague at the airport and that sort of thing.

The real impact, however, will probably be not in the LAN but in the PAN (personal area network). Bluetooth's ability to connect all of a person's 'stuff' (by which I mean phone, earpiece, PDA, watch, laptop and so on) is much more interesting than its ability to connect one person's stuff to another person's stuff.

The simple applications will probably be the most compelling, although not at current price points. Adding a Bluetooth sleeve to a Palm, for example, costs about $200 and adding a Bluetooth link to a mobile phone costs about the same again.

Now $400 to replace the infrared link (which works tolerably well) between my Motorola Timeport and my Handspring Visor is not a compelling case. Assuming realistic pricing, however, a Bluetooth earpiece/microphone for hands-free operation of my phone and a Bluetooth card for my Visor Prism would be natural purchases (once I was sure that no-one could listen in to my phone conversations from the next office or read my appointments calendar on the train).

Using the hands-free earpiece in a car (with the phone in the glove box, which does work) or on a train (with the phone in a briefcase) would be simple and convenient.

Those who write off Bluetooth are being too hasty. On the other hand, the idea that every device will have Bluetooth built in by the end of this year is equally wrong.

Bluetooth is here, and will stay, but it's some way from being a mass market consumer proposition.
Dick Clark is a consultant at management
consultants Hyperion.

Read more on Data centre hardware