Waiting for the Bluetooth revolution to happen

Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology, was hyped as the next big thing last year. It promised then to revolutionise the way we work and play. Today, the promise remains just that -- a promise.

          Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology, was hyped as the next big thing last year. It promised then to revolutionise the way we work and play. Today, the promise remains just that -- a promise.

          But enthusiasts say its time has come and take-off is beginning. Pessimists caution it will take another two or three years, if it were to happen at all. What is Bluetooth and why has it caused so much excitement? Bluetooth is an open standard for RF (radio frequency) wireless communication between devices. At the most elementary level, it eliminates wires and cables between both stationary and mobile devices, like other wireless technologies, such as the IEEE 802.11, a well-known global standard that also uses radio waves.

          Bluetooth also supports both data and voice communication, giving it the versatility required of communication technologies today.

          But the difference between Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11, for example, is that Bluetooth is a connection between devices whereas IEEE 802.11 is a LAN (local area network) connection. This means that in a Bluetooth set up, a hub or base station can be eliminated.

          Doing away with the base station is a big selling point, explained Lim Yew Seng, general manager, operations, of Sunderland Technologies, a local company that provides wireless connectivity solutions.

          An example explains it all: with Bluetooth, a PC, which is a device, can be connected directly to a printer, which is another device without needing a server or hub between them. This means a saving of at least a few thousand dollars in hardware costs alone.

          In addition, it means a Bluetooth-enabled laptop can be linked up to any Bluetooth-enabled printer without worrying about compatibility and settings.

          The device-to-device capability of Bluetooth also allows for what has been dubbed 'personal area network' or PAN. This is an ad hoc network within the range of a Bluetooth device. It means that all Bluetooth-enabled devices within reach - 10 m in the case of a device or 100 m in the case of a base station - will be hooked up.

          The maximum number of devices that can be linked together in such a pico net is eight, unless one of the devices of the first pico net is also linked to another pico net. In such a case, the devices in the first network can connect to the second and so on in a bigger scatter net, explained Lim.

          Within the pico or scatter net, one Bluetooth-enabled phone can talk to another as a walkie-talkie, that is, without using the telecommunications connections and thereby not paying their charges.

          Due to the PAN and a service discovery profile, you can also synchronize all your devices or control them effortlessly. Imagine entering your office and immediately your Bluetooth-enabled PDA (personal digital assistant) automatically updates the address list and calendar in your Bluetooth-enabled desktop PC or vice versa.

          Or, when you go home, the same PDA can switch on your Bluetooth-enabled air conditioner if the temperature is above what you have specified.

          Restaurants too can exploit this capability to send out an announcement of its nearby presence to all Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and mobile phones in the vicinity, suggested Lim.

          It is potential applications like this that have caused the buzz about Bluetooth. "Bluetooth on its own is nothing. It is the applications that make it look like something new," says Jamshaid Akbar, chief executive officer of GoMobile.

          His company is a product developer that will take up an idea and turn it into a commercially feasible product for its clients in six to 12 weeks. "We will demo the concept, build a prototype and propose the commercialisation strategy. In the six to 12 weeks, we will build the hardware, the operating software and the application software," says Akbar.

          A firm believer in the future of Bluetooth, he thinks that small, innovative companies are thriving on Bluetooth and the results of their work will soon come to light.

          His own company is working on a couple of Bluetooth projects. He is not able to reveal who his clients are but is willing to describe what the applications will do.

          One is a Bluetooth headphone that connects to a basic browser and from there to an appliance such as a stereo set. From one headphone, it would be possible to configure and stream the same music to other headsets, said Akbar.

          A second application is for the hospital environment. It is to place a Bluetooth connection on a hospital bed so that information from all the machines monitoring the patient in the bed can be transmitted to screens in a control room. In this way, the doctor or nurse can monitor the patient constantly.

          Another application, could be to use Bluetooth phones to access the Internet to use cheap VOIP (Voice-over-Internet-protocol) instead of the more expensive normal public switched telephone networks. There is a company here that is working on a Bluetooth peripheral for networks, says Lim.

          Such applications are still in the pipeline but Ericsson, one of the initiators of Bluetooth, already has a product in the market. It is a compact and lightweight headset that allows users to answer their Bluetooth-enabled telephone by simply pressing a button on the headset.

          "The demand for a system that can easily connect devices for the transfer of data and voice over short distances without cables has grown. Bluetooth wireless technology fills this important communication need and the Ericsson Bluetooth headset is one of the first few successful applications," says Jack Tan, Ericsson's product and services manager, consumer products.

          He points to the following prediction: "In a forecast made by Cahners In-Stat Group last July, the product availability over the next few years was defined in three waves.

          "The first wave is supposed to occur around 2000 and 2001. It is happening with products such as Ericsson's Bluetooth headset, Toshiba's and IBM's Bluetooth PC Cards that are already commercially deployed. Other products include high-end mobile phones and notebook PCs, cordless phones, handheld PCs, PDAs and adapters for mobile phones.

          "The second wave will in many respects overlap with the first. What we will see are PCs with Bluetooth circuitry on the motherboard, printers, fax machines, digital cameras and products for industry and medicine.

          "Last but not least, the third wave will include low-cost mobile phones, lower-cost portable devices and desktop PCs," he says.

          Singapore is right there in the thick of propagating Bluetooth. Avnet, a worldwide distributor of electronic components from the US has set up its RF Design Services Lab in Singapore. With the lab, Avnet will be able to provide a suite of value-added design and technical services for Bluetooth products.

          A new wireless research centre that is being set up also expects to work on Bluetooth applications. Wireless Intellect Labs, a joint venture by mobile operator M1 and infrastructure developer EdgeMatrix, envisages its early projects to include Bluetooth as it works on technologies for mobile commerce and wireless broadband solutions.

          Sunderland Technologies, a Singapore company, has launched a suite of Bluetooth peripherals and accessories. Besides the commonplace Bluetooth PC card for laptops, it offers a printer adapter, which can be used for any printer, a US (universal serial bus) adapter for PCs and other US host-enabled devices and a compact flash card for compact flash host-enabled devices such as PDAs. It also has an adapter for the Palm V handheld called the Waveclip.

          Lim is upbeat about the company's Bluetooth products, saying that they have already signed an order for 10,000 Waveclips. They are still in negotiation for other products.

          "We really believe in Bluetooth. It is going to be part of daily life," says Lim.

          The reason for that, explained Akbar, is that Bluetooth will be cheap and therefore will be embedded in every device. As more applications are developed around the Bluetooth networks and as the devices become ubiquitous, the adoption rate will spiral.

          This is where detractors beg to differ.

          They say that for Bluetooth to become widely used, companies that make chips for the technology must reduce the cost of their products to a level that's reasonable for makers of mass market electronics products. At the same time, until those gadget makers start to order Bluetooth chips in high volume, prices will remain high. The catch-22 situation could keep Bluetooth on the back burner until 2003 or even 2004, according to some analysts. "At its current cost, Bluetooth is not going to work its way into the mass markets," says Ben Thompson, senior analyst at Gartner Group.

          The ideal price point for the set of components needed to bring Bluetooth capabilities to a product - typically a processor, radio transmitter, antenna and flash memory - is around $US5, Thompson says. Most Bluetooth chip sets on the market today start at $US10 to $US15 - a substantial difference for device makers that produce low-margin goods in high volumes.

          "Bluetooth is one of the most over-hyped technologies of the century," adds Phillip Redman, another research analyst at Gartner.

          Adding to the deflation, the desktop division of Microsoft has temporarily withdrawn support for Bluetooth short-range wireless devices from the next version of its Windows operating system, XP. The company's Pocket PC division continues to embrace the technology, although it expects a slow rollout.

          The ambivalence at Microsoft can be seen as reflecting the realities of Bluetooth. "Bluetooth is real, but I don't think (the rollout) will be smooth sailing," says Douglas Dedo, group product manager in Microsoft's Mobile Devices Division.

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