RealTime IT News

Is Bluetooth Ready for Prime Time?

Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology billed as a replacement for cables and infrared (though more enticing possibilities lurk around the corner), is slowly but surely gaining recognition in its bid to become a core wireless technology.

The technology added momentum Wednesday as companies at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany and CTIA Wireless 2001 in Las Vegas, pushed reams of Bluetooth-related announcements -- from new Bluetooth-enabled phones from Nokia and Ericsson, to a wristwatch from Seiko Instruments that supports the technology, to Bluetooth-enabled printers from Hewlett Packard (as well as add-ons for HP's Jornada Pocket PCs), a Bluetooth headset from WIDCOMM, to Madge Networks N.V. subsidiary Red-M's home access server for creating an in-building Bluetooth network. While Intel has yet to make an official announcement, it is reportedly planning to embed Bluetooth technology on future chipsets.

Bluetooth is a short-range packet radio networking technology first proposed by Ericsson engineers in 1998. An industry consortium -- whose main members now include Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Toshiba, 3Com and Motorola -- coordinates the specifications for the technology. The technology enables the ad hoc creation of wireless networks which can bi-directionally link up to eight devices (line-of-sight is not necessary) and transmit data and voice packets at speeds of up to 722kbps. Bluetooth currently has a range of about 30+ feet.

The short-range networks Bluetooth enables are called Personal Area Networks (PANs) or piconets. The principal uses of PANs include replacing PC cabling with wireless connections, communicating with peripheral devices like printers, providing mobile (and wireless) in-house LAN access, downloading and uploading files to mobile devices, organizing ad hoc workgroups/communities and channeling interactions between appliances.

Like other unlicensed devices -- HomeRF and 802.11 wireless LANs, automatic garage door openers, cordless telephones and microwave ovens -- Bluetooth utilizes 2.4GHz channels. Bluetooth is more able to move from frequency to frequency, in theory making it better able to handle interference than competing protocols. But, as IDC put it, "Your Bluetooth-enabled phone can open your garage door, and it may do so whether you want it to or not."

Last April IDC forecast embedded Bluetooth chip shipments in 2001 to come in just shy of 50 million and add-on Bluetooth chip shipments to come in somewhere around 75 million. By 2004, IDC predicted embedded chip shipments would approach 350 million and add-on chip shipments would top the 100 million mark.

Still, enticing possibilities aside, Bluetooth has challenges to overcome, according to IDC. First and foremost, pricing is an issue. The Bluetooth chipset currently costs about $20, though Bluetooth chipset vendors say they are approaching the $5 mark which industry watchers see as the magical threshold. Also, due to speed and range limitations, Bluetooth is not the optimal solution for general LANs -- the 802.11b wireless LAN standard, for instance, can reach data transmission speeds of up to 11mbps. IDC said boosting power would add range but would also increase the possibilities of traffic jams, eavesdropping and battery drain. Also, IDC said security remains a problem. Bluetooth defines device authentication and encryption security at the datalink level but many applications require higher levels of security like user authorization.

Finally, IDC forecast that users will not be driven to adopt Bluetooth until two key requirements -- ubiquitous enabled devices and killer applications -- are met. IDC said Bluetooth-enabled phones are not enough -- the technology must also find its way into cars, information kiosks, PCs, PDAs, TVs, kitchen appliances, etc. to thoroughly drive adoption. Applications -- from multiplayer games to pick-up chat services, traffic alerts, slave printing and terminal services -- must also become available.

Initially, IDC sees Bluetooth turning up in PCs, cars, and information appliances in the U.S. Phones are already being pushed at European markets and IDC said Europe's advanced digital phone infrastructure provides a "big tent" for rapid embedded adoption. IDC was also impressed by the potential of Bluetooth-enabled digital cameras able to print or upload photos via a cell phone.