Bluetooth: Is It Ready Yet?

by Jim Hanks

Though more than 1500 companies have joined the Bluetooth Special Interest Group since its inception, Bluetooth® has been the most over-hyped technology of recent years. Advocates have raved that, thanks to Bluetooth, you'd be able to pay for gas without ever opening your wallet. They said you could pay for meals without approaching a cash register or waving at a waitress. Three years later these dreams have yet to be realized, yet Bluetooth is still around (and highly touted). Why hasn't this technology tanked? Will Bluetooth ever be fully embraced?

First of all, to understand Bluetooth's appeal you need to comprehend how straightforward its primary uses are. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that can transmit signals up to 30 feet away. For the most part, it will be used to connect devices such as computers, PDAs, mobile phones, and printers. So its main goal is simple: to get rid of that spaghetti bowl of wires around your desk.

Recently a lot of optimism has been generated by the entry of 2 new advocates: Microsoft and Apple. At the WinHEC forum in April, 2002, Bill Gates announced his commitment to the idea of Bluetooth-enabled PCs as wireless networking hubs for both home and commercial uses. Meanwhile, Apple has introduced a USB Bluetooth adapter that, at $50, is roughly one-third the cost of comparable PC adapters.

So, yes, Bluetooth is just about here. Actually it IS here, and it's more than just sitting up and taking nourishment.

What's taken Bluetooth so long?
Part of the reason for the deployment delay has been technical, but much has been semantic and unnecessary. After the dot-com kaboom, the public has been wary to trust a technology with an unproven future. And since wireless connectivity is a relatively recent phenomenon, people have lumped together the various protocols and thought of them as competitors.

Contrary to what many people believe, Bluetooth is not at odds with cellular or 802.11b Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology. With a foreseeable price tag of $5 per chip and a maximum speed of 1 Mbps, Bluetooth is well suited for short-range uses. The pricier Wi-Fi protocol is designed to provide broadband internet access to computers within a few hundred meters of wireless hubs. Meanwhile, cellular networks are for more long-range roaming purposes.

The only true competitor of Bluetooth is infrared—a technology that is inferior due to its line-of-sight requirements. When using Bluetooth, you don't have to point your PDA at another's in order to transfer your business card. In fact, you don't have to take your PDA out of your briefcase.

In the end, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular will enhance each other, not detract from each other. If people own all 3, they'll be able to access the internet with their laptop, PDA, or mobile phone from anywhere they like while making sure that all of their information (addresses, appointments, and so on) is synchronized.

Coming together
What will really make the Bluetooth market explode is its ability to integrate devices. Most of the leading manufacturers have already installed Bluetooth in recent models. So if your laptop is equipped with a Bluetooth card and you have one of these phones, you can send e-mail and surf the internet without ever taking your phone out of your pocket—no modems or wires are required. PDAs now offer Bluetooth cards that keep your calendars and address books synchronized with computers and mobile phones.

And soon you won't even need these network cards. Toshiba and IBM were among the first to install Bluetooth cards as standard equipment in their laptops and other companies are quickly following suit—most importantly, Apple and Microsoft. Microsoft has even announced that it will sell mice and keyboards equipped with Bluetooth this year. Numerous other uses are also in place, with clients in fields ranging from hospitals to fast food.

Where is Bluetooth going?
Security is always a main concern of wireless technology and until the public is confident, you probably won't see your mobile phone paying for movie tickets any time soon. But Bluetooth's frequency-hopping transmissions ensure that Bluetooth will be safe and relatively free of interference.

Presently, manufacturers are working on a next-generation Bluetooth protocol that will increase transmission speeds and range. And given its inexpensive price tag, it's easy to see why the media has repeatedly touted Bluetooth's possibilities. It's only a matter of time before some of these dreams are realized. A tire company in Norway, for instance, recently installed Bluetooth chips in their products. Whenever wear gets high or tire pressure gets low, drivers are immediately alerted.

Hello Direct is a firm believer in Bluetooth, and expects that it will take center stage in their paper catalog, and on their web site, HelloDirect.com, in the coming year. The company sees it contributing a number of headset solutions, and to many more in both cellular and desktop contexts. To be sure, they expect Bluetooth's presence, especially in cellular, to be white-hot in the year 2003.