Is it too soon for Bluetooth?

The launch of a new Bluetooth server next month has IT pundits asking whether it is too soon to create a server market for the...

The launch of a new Bluetooth server next month has IT pundits asking whether it is too soon to create a server market for the fledgling technology. Marc Ambasna Jones reports there are still concerns over the wireless protocol's security, performance and specification.

Red-M's decision to launch a Bluetooth server next month has raised a number of issues about the validity of the wireless protocol and its ability to benefit business systems.

Security is still a prevalent concern with Bluetooth, as is interference from other wireless devices. There is also the issue that products being released over the next couple of months will be based on a specification that will be out of date by the end of November.

Red-M, the Bluetooth subsidiary of Madge Networks, looks to sell its server to application developers and service providers. Meanwhile, corporate users could be left wondering why they should get involved with a fledgling wireless technology that is still experiencing problems, let alone buy a server for it.

There is a belief among analysts and suppliers alike that Bluetooth will eventually penetrate most aspects of everyday IT. There is little understanding as to when this will be, but it is certainly not next year. Red-M's decision to release a product next month is as much about market creation as trying to gain an early market share.

Simon Gawne, vice-president of marketing and business development at Red-M, said developers could use the hardware to implement the applications they are developing and then bundle the server and access points as part of an overall Bluetooth offering.

"Application developers will drive Bluetooth into the corporate environment, not the hardware suppliers," said Gawne. "You won't be able to buy our boxes from PC World for a couple of years but there are real opportunities for the technology now. Our view is that there is a huge demand for Bluetooth."

Gawne has some strong ideas about the technology and where Red-M is going to concentrate its efforts. Vertical sectors such as retail are high on the agenda, while deploying servers and access points in airports and train stations are, he said, "potential winners".

The company is also currently in discussion with a developer of an electronic ticketing system that will enable PDA, mobile phone and notebook users to check into a flight from their mobile device as soon as they enter the airport, said Gawne.

It is here that security issues will be raised. For Red-M, and most Bluetooth and networking suppliers, security is an issue that needs constant attention. At the moment, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has its work cut out.

"There are still concerns with security and the ability to interrupt messages," said Butler Group analyst Ray Woabank. "However, Bluetooth is impressive and it will take off. Any organisation, be it a corporate business, an airport or a train company, should look at it very seriously. The levels of security will have to be investigated but the issues will be resolved, no question."

As well as the airport and railway station Bluetooth technology, a large number of companies, such as IBM, Toshiba, Ericsson and Motorola have announced products in the PC card, mobile phone and printing space.

"There will very shortly be a large installed base of these network edge-type devices," said Gawne. "We hope to use this large base of edge devices by providing the structure for a controlled environment within an office, or any building."

If wires and cables start to be replaced in offices, homes and cars, eventually covering an entire town, the potential for Bluetooth is clear. The reality will, of course, be different. There is little doubt that it will become a ubiquitous technology, but not without jumping a lot more hurdles.

Merrill Lynch claimed there will be 2.2 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices shipped by 2005 and with the cost of the silicon coming down to about $5, the forecasts start to look believable.

According to Adam Wright, director of professional services exchange's Technology Interrupt unit, Bluetooth will fill a huge void in the instant networking arena to enable companies to hotdesk their employees more efficiently and provide greater flexibility to IT departments.

"However, Bluetooth is just one aspect of an instant networking environment," said Wright. "Other technologies such as Jini from Sun and Universal Plug and Play from Microsoft will have to integrate with Bluetooth. Of course, this may demand new configuration skills for IT engineers," Wright said.

The release of products such as Red-M's server suggest the technology is ready but it would be a brave manager that took the Bluetooth plunge now without investigating all the issues.

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