Bluetooth devices yet to bite

A Bluetooth conference held in London last week confirmed that practical applications for this technology are still a long way...

A Bluetooth conference held in London last week confirmed that practical applications for this technology are still a long way from the shops.

The Bluetooth short- range wireless voice and data technology promises to eliminate the spaghetti of wires needed to connect mobile computing devices. Despite vociferous promotion by IT suppliers, practical applications for the technology remain some way off.

Last week's ICM Bluetooth conference in London, attended by the major Bluetooth developers - Nokia, Ericsson, ICL, TDK Systems, 3Com, Toshiba and chip-maker ARM - confirmed that Bluetooth is a useful technology still looking for a viable commercial market.

Computer Weekly reported earlier this year that the commercial roll-out of Bluetooth was up to 12 months late, following previous firm promises from Bluetooth developers that the first products would be in the shops by last Christmas.

The conference focused on getting the first products to market and on building critical mass for the technology. Suppliers want to see it embedded in products that are seen as more than just gimmicks.

Yet the only product under discussion was a headset that allows wireless voice connections between a mobile phone and someone's ear. Despite the product going some way to help alleviate current concerns about the use of mobile phones being the potential cause of brain tumours, it is unlikely to set the world of business computing alight.

The Ericsson earpiece, promised for this summer, was the only firm product commitment to come out of the conference.

However, there was plenty of talk about the price of Bluetooth chips, having all the Bluetooth technology architecture on a single chip, data transmission applications using Bluetooth, and the growing consumer demand for the sort of products and services Bluetooth could deliver. But no product commitments.

But this did nothing to dispel the optimism of the delegates that Bluetooth would eventually arrive. The industry popularity of the technology is evident in the membership of the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG), which now stands at 1,600. In fact, the huge membership is often given as a reason for the hold-ups.

Ross Forman, from wireless products business development at Bluetooth OEM Smart Modular Technologies, said interoperability problems between the SIG members - exasperated by the number of companies involved - was the main cause for the delay.

Forman said a recent Bluetooth "plug-fest" - where manufacturers tested interoperability between products - on the US west coast saw barely a single product work with another.

Forman said, "There were programmers there who went away and came back the next morning, and did get things to work, but it was clear that Bluetooth was still struggling to be an imminent solution."

Nokia Bluetooth products manager Petri Morko presented his vision of a wireless world built around technologies like Bluetooth, but refused to give any hint as to when users would see Nokia's Bluetooth killer application - wireless data transfer from a laptop or personal digital assitant to a mobile phone for transmission.

Only recently, a Nokia spokesman said this would appear "some time this year", but Morko could not even make that commitment.

Analyst company Forrester Research is predicting that millions of devices will be equipped with Bluetooth over the next couple of years.

But TDK Systems research and development director Nick Hunn said big growth would not be possible until the price for adding Bluetooth capability to a device dropped below $5 apiece.

Hunn, however, said this would not be possible until around 2004.

  • Processor manufacturer ARM is working with Ericsson to produce Bluetooth chips, and sees the Japanese market as a particularly lucrative market for Bluetooth.

  • Cambridge Silicon Radio, a spin-off from technology company Cambridge Consultants, announced the development of silicon Bluetooth solutions to manufacturers at a cost of between $3 and $7. But all-in-one chips for mobile phones, to be placed on the motherboard, won't be available until the end of the year.

    What is Bluetooth?

  • It allows wireless communications between devices using a licence-free radio spectrum band

  • It operates over a basic 10-metre range, which can be extended to around 100 metres using booster devices

  • Bluetooth can be used for voice and data, with data transmission being seen as the most useful business use

  • Unlike the infrared solution, Bluetooth does not need a line-of-sight connection

  • Data speeds are dependant on devices used and other parameters, but speeds of up to 723kbps are possible for transfers between PDAs (personal digital assistants)

  • Read more on Wireless networking