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Biting into Bluetooth

The business and technical press coverage of Bluetooth has been constant and often brutal. And for the most part, rightfully so. "Are we getting ahead of ourselves—again?" wrote a technology magazine editor in his monthly column. "It's got momentum, it's got mass, and it's got great PR." Then there were headlines like, "Bluetooth Riddled With Cavities" and "Bluetooth Still Teething." A more to the point headline would have been, "Bluetooth Vendors Bite Off More Than They Can Chew."

Bluetooth was designed to enable spontaneous connectivity between cellular phones, mobile computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other wireless devices.

Initially conceived as a wireless replacement for cable hookups for portable consumer electronic products, Bluetooth has become a digital transmission standard for short-range links between laptop computers, cellular phones, PDAs, and other electronic devices. But there is an important difference from other wireless networks: It offers what the Bluetooth community calls "unconscious" or "hidden" computing. Bluetooth-enabled products will be designed to automatically seek each other out and configure themselves into piconetworks, which can, among other things, forward e-mail received on a cellular phone in a person's pocket to the notebook computer or laptop in a nearby briefcase. Bluetooth can also exchange business cards with someone passed on the street or in a bar or restaurant if given permission to do so, "opening up whole new blind dating opportunities," according to a Merrill Lynch research report. It can download data from a digital camera to a PC or cellphone. Children sitting in the front of a school bus could play games with children sitting in the back of the same bus. In fixed applications, it can replace hardwired connections with wireless Internet access points in airports, hotel lobbies, and conference centers. A Finnish telecom operator has even demonstrated a Bluetooth-enabled vending machine, allowing consumers to buy products out of the machine by transmitting an account code from a Bluetooth phone or PDA.

Why "Bluetooth?" Because someone at Ericsson suggested naming this new development after King Harald of Denmark, nicknamed Bluetooth, who is credited with uniting the warring factions of Denmark and Norway in the 10th century, when he reigned. Ericsson figured it could do the same with its Bluetooth—unite wireless devices everywhere.

Bluetooth is supposed to be the "next big thing." But it has had some problems getting out of the chute, most of them technical. Ericsson began exploring short-range, low-power, low-cost wireless technologies in 1994. By 1998, Ericsson was convinced it had something important and that it was far enough along in its development to move forward, but it needed help to develop the technology into an open, global standard and to promote the concept. To pull this off, Ericsson teamed with four other heavyweights—IBM, Toshiba, Intel, and Nokia. Together, they formed what became known as the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which eventually grew to more than 2,000 company members worldwide.

The hype has been huge, as have been the expectations. Market research organizations projected that more than a billion Bluetooth-enabled devices would be on the market by 2004. One of them, the Gartner Group, said it expected Bluetooth to become a "defining force" in portable electronic products. Merrill Lynch estimated that by 2005, Bluetooth would be in 95% of the world's cellular phones (that's more than a billion phones), 95% of wireless headsets (700 million), 90% of PCs (400 million), 50% of all of the printers sold that year (109 million), and 60% of digital cameras (64 million).

But there were problems. Virtually none of the earliest Bluetooth products tested worked as designed—they simply would not communicate. Testing was difficult because there were no instruments to measure many of Bluetooth's unique functions. It didn't help that the target price for Bluetooth integrated circuits (ICs), set somewhere in the early going at $5—a bit high for a consumer electronics device—didn't seem attainable on any scale until at least 2002, possibly later.

Bluetooth security was another issue, but it stayed in the background until two researchers at Lucent Technologies announced they had found flaws in the technology that could permit anyone to eavesdrop on a digital conversation or even to determine a user's identity. Although the Lucent researchers said the problem could be fixed fairly easily, the disclosure generated more negative press for Bluetooth, focusing mostly on the technology's use in high-traffic areas, such as airports and conference centers.

Another serious issue was interference. Millions of products already in use operate in the same frequency range as Bluetooth—2.4 gigahertz (GHz)—such as microwave ovens, garage door openers, audio remote control devices, toys, the newest cordless phone models, as well as two competing technologies—wireless local area networks, which link offices and factories in buildings or campus-type settings, and HomeRF, which is the standard for wireless home and small office networks capable of linking multiple PCs for other wireless devices. Moving Bluetooth to a higher frequency has been discussed in Bluetooth and regulatory circles, but that could be years off.

Then there's the brand. Bluetooth SIG leaders were deathly afraid that some companies, particularly small startups and no-name Asian toy and accessories makers, would jump the gun with Bluetooth-labeled products before they are technically ready to interoperate with fully "certified" Bluetooth devices and give the brand a bad name. Simon Ellis, communications marketing manager for the mobile and handheld product group at Intel and marketing chairman of the SIG, told Wireless Systems Design magazine in December 1998: "It's terribly important that [Bluetooth] not be overhyped, setting up the possibility for disappointment in the marketplace when the actual products start appearing."

Bluetooth also has competition. The most serious is the IEEE 802.11 technical standard for wireless local area networks. Initially developed for use in offices and factories, a number of versions of this technology are emerging that could give Bluetooth a serious run for its money, particularly in fixed wireless applications. Another would-be competitor is infrared (IR) technology, which consumers have been using for years to change their TV channels and adjust the volume on their stereo systems. IR is also a feature that is built into virtually every notebook computer, mainly to wirelessly exchange business cards and to dump text material into an IR-equipped printer at very short range.

The installed base of IR-equipped products easily tops 250 million globally. But unlike Bluetooth, which is a radio and is only range-limited, IR must operate line-of-sight (the IR ports of different products must be aimed at each other) and operates within a narrow angle (a 30-degree maximum cone) and at very short range. It also transmits data at relatively slow speeds, which helps explain why few people actually use the IR feature in their portable devices. (Toshiba estimated a few years ago that barely 5% of its notebook computer customers used the IR function.) IrDA, the Infrared Data Association, claims this has changed with the growing population of PDA users and says usage is now up to at least 40% among Palm users. IrDA calls them "loyal Palm beamers." IrDA also believes IR use is a cultural issue because it is very popular in Japan and Europe, particularly for exchanging business cards and short text messages. (In fact, Casio's IR-enabled QV2000 digital camera is available virtually everywhere but the United States.)

Bottom line, the delivery of Bluetooth products on any kind of a meaningful scale was more than a year behind schedule. Almost everyone anticipated a significant number and variety of Bluetooth products on retailers shelves by the end of 2000. The reality check came when a worldwide survey of design engineers indicated that most of them didn't expect their companies to begin delivering Bluetooth-enabled devices in any significant numbers until at least 2003—not a pretty picture for a technology that is only effective and useful when it reaches a critical mass; what good is a Bluetooth-enabled device if it has no one to "talk" to?

None of these problems are as serious, however, as SIG members' concerns about interoperability. As would-be Bluetooth vendors moved into 2001, few of their products had met the SIG's interoperability requirements, which means that almost none of them could actually communicate as they were supposed to.

To help speed Bluetooth products to market, the SIG waived some of the most rigorous test requirements for interoperability and allowed tests of Bluetooth products against what were called Blue Units, which were actually kits made up of key components, software, and documentation to help first-time Bluetooth design engineers accelerate the development of prototype devices. Just to complicate things, some products were ready for market before test systems had been validated and were available. Meanwhile, SIG members were developing their own test equipment for Bluetooth products and conducting "unplugfests" in which they tested their products against each other to ensure interoperability.

As reported in the November 2000 issue of IEEE Spectrum, "With several companies, mostly startups like San Diego's Silicon Wave and Britain's Cambridge Silicon Radio, all but betting the ranch on the success of Bluetooth, it is going to be difficult to soften the hype and face the reality of creating electronic products with an entirely new communications interface. But, then, this is supposed to be a joint effort and, as one market analyst put it, "2,000 companies can't be wrong."

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