Making the old new again

Excluding IBM, Apple had prior to 1997 one of the worst cases of 'Not Invented Here' syndrome the industry had ever seen. Unless the technology had been invented or modified by in-house engineers, it simply wasn't going to make it into an Apple product.

Excluding IBM, Apple had prior to 1997 one of the worst cases of "Not Invented Here" syndrome the industry had ever seen.

Unless the technology had been invented or modified by inhouse engineers, it simply wasn't going to make it into an Apple product. Worse still, this preference lead to the use of technologies such as NuBus which, while arguably superior at the time of introduction, became a point of incompatibility for Apple products instead of a point of difference.

These days, however, Apple has accepted the reality that to succeed in a multivendor environment it needs to design with open standards in mind so it can meet its strategy of fitting in but standing out with superior design. So instead of having the platform crammed with proprietary technology like ADB or AppleTalk, the modern platform uses standard USB and TCP/IP.

In fact, recent history has shown that Apple's adoption of a standard can actually help with industry acceptance. The introduction of the iMac saw Apple cut all legacy ports off but USB, helping legitimise Intel's technology and kickstart an industry in peripherals by providing an instant market to manufacturers. Without this market manufacturers would have had no reason to design USB devices, as they could rely on every machine having an archaic but functional parallel port. In a neat twist, since Macintoshes have never had parallel ports, the outcome of this decision has been a dramatic widening of the offerings available for the platform.

A similar story offers itself with the adoption of 802.11b for wireless networking in their AirPort product range. In recently released hardware, though, Apple hopes repeat those successes by making Bluetooth capability a standard feature.

It's hard to believe, but Bluetooth is a relatively old technology. A special interest group for Bluetooth was formed way back in 1998 and the 1.0 version of the standard was ratified the following July. Designed as a cheap short-range wireless replacement for irDA, it has been somewhat of a solution looking for a problem up until very recently. While Bluetooth-enabled headsets have been very neat, and the ability to have your PDA communicate directly with the phone in your pocket is great, the cost of such solution has put many people off. Who wants to pay $300-plus to Bluetooth-enable your printer when a USB cable costs $10?

The key to the acceptance of any new technology by the market is the perceived value of the things it enables you to do. In the case of Bluetooth, I believe it's up to the software to make the technology worthwhile. Apple has come to the party by ensuring that Mac OS X fully supports Bluetooth by providing an API that all developers can use.

For a while, the only pieces of software that took advantage of this API were the standard ones developed by Apple: iSync and Bluetooth File Exchange. iSync allows you to synchronise all of your contacts and calendar events across handheld devices such as phones, PDAs and the iPod. With Bluetooth, you can do this without cables. Bluetooth File Exchange on the other hand, does pretty much what it says, allowing you to transfer files using the low speed connection that Bluetooth provides. In short, interesting, but not really enough to make most excited about the technology.

Recently, though, an independent developer called Jonas Salling put together an application called Sony Ericsson Clicker that in combination with the system wide scripting language AppleScript, makes a compatible Sony Ericsson phone a sophisticated remote control for your computer. It works in two main ways: either by adding menus to your phone or by detecting the proximity of the phone to computer. From having it control a PowerPoint presentation to turning the lights off in the lounge via an AppleScript controlling the X-10 based HomeRun application, there are virtually no limits to what you can do. One of the more serious uses for it, is to set it up to automatically bring up a screen saver with a password when you walk away from your computer or mute the sound on your computer. Apple was so impressed by it that it put together a page in the AppleScripting section on its website dedicated to it.

A good friend of mine who loves things like this and has been playing with Bluetooth under Mac OS X since the preview release last year, has the good fortune to own a T68i. He recently tried out the Sony Ericsson Clicker application, and even though he doesn't buy much shareware, thought that it was easily worth the $US 10. He is simply amazed by how much more useful this application makes his phone to him.

As luck would have it, two independent developers came up with the same idea at the same time, and so Romeo by Arboreal Software was released at virtually the same time. Romeo is at version 0.5.1 current and is similar to Sony Ericsson Clicker. It lacks the proximity sensor, but has the additional feature of being able to control the mouse and muting the computer's sound when the phone rings. When using the mouse feature it activates Mac OS X's built in zoom feature so you can easily see the pointer across the room.

So while the basic "cable-free" concept behind Bluetooth was good, the extended functionality enabled by it is great, and means that it is going to be awfully difficult to resist grabbing a T68i when I next need to upgrade my cellphone.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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