Bluetooth Wireless Technology: Prepare for the Wireless Boom

by Jim Hanks

Imagine the volume on your stereo automatically lowering when your phone rings. Consider how easy traveling would be if your mobile phone provided your laptop with internet connectivity—without wires or cords. These are just a few of the potential uses for a technology that is set for mass deployment. Although stereos may not be equipped with it for awhile, desktop and mobile phones are now ready. GN Netcom has recently introduced one of the world's first Bluetooth® headset systems to consumers.

As many eagerly await this new technology, others are probably wondering…

What is Bluetooth wireless technology, anyway?1
Operating on the 2.4 GHz frequency band, Bluetooth wireless technology promises to link electronic devices using short-range radio waves. Once they are equipped with a Bluetooth chip, laptops, headsets, cell phones, printers, fax machines, PDAs, and other peripherals will unconsciously seek each other out and share information without the need for cords (or user programming). In a few years, Bluetooth wireless technology will be installed in all types of devices: when you go to the movies, you will buy tickets with your PDA as you walk through the theatre doors; when you get gasoline, your car will charge your credit card without a single swipe.

Not impeded by line-of-sight restrictions, Bluetooth signals can transmit data at speeds of up to 1 Mbps and can travel to distances of up to 30 feet. But the primary reason for Bluetooth's popularity is its price. The new chips will eventually cost about $5 each.

Wasn't Bluetooth wireless technology "the next big thing" last year?
For some time, Bluetooth technology has been the much-hyped killer app of wireless connectivity. Supposedly, products were to be equipped with this technology by June 2000. But due to design and security flaws, manufacturers (including GN Netcom) held back on enabling their products until they had full confidence. Basic glitches needed to be fixed and security had to be improved (by incorporating spread spectrum technology into data transmissions).

So is Bluetooth wireless technology ready for everyone?
Because it is designed to link various product lines, Bluetooth is a complicated technology. Microsoft recently announced that its next version of Windows will not support Bluetooth and a few other companies have decided to wait, as well. It is the simpler applications that industry analysts and product testers are confident that Bluetooth is ready for—products in which Bluetooth will replace cords and enable similar devices to speak to each other. For the most part, the earliest enabled products will include: laptops and mobile phones, which will facilitate easier internet access; and headsets, which will allow consumers to use the same headset to access various desktop and mobile devices. Headsets have been among the product lines that have consistently tested well with Bluetooth installed.

Are concerns still lingering?
Because they use the same transmission frequency, some people worry about possible interference between 802.11b Wireless LAN (or Wi-Fi) transmissions and Bluetooth signals. However, many tests have been performed by independent sources using the 2 technologies simultaneously and no disruptions have been found.

While Bluetooth technology has experienced delays, other wireless technologies such as HomeRF and Wi-Fi have gained more attention. As a result, many people wonder if Bluetooth will survive the competition. The incredible stake many firms have in Bluetooth can assuage this fear. More than 2,000 companies (including Nokia, Ericsson, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Hello Direct) have invested a lot of resources into this technology thereby guaranteeing its presence in the wireless future. Besides, and perhaps more importantly, Bluetooth technology is far cheaper than the competition. Most companies involved in the Bluetooth consortium have already begun mass rollout plans.

Welcome to the wireless world
Due to the setbacks, Bluetooth technology has created a growing bubble of expectation. By year-end, experts say that 5 million products will have Bluetooth installed. In 4 years, the number of enabled products will explode to more than 1 billion.

So, yes, Bluetooth is ready for the consumer world. Initially, it will relieve headset wearers and computer users from tangles of cords. A few years from now, when you finish reading an article such as this, you can head to the break room for breakfast and your cell phone will tell your toaster to fire up that poppy-seed bagel.

Ahh…technology.

1The name Bluetooth is derived from the 10th century king who united Nordic nations under one religion. Supposedly, King Harald Bluetooth preferred talking to fighting.