Whither Bluetooth?

Is it time we gave up on Bluetooth? We've been discussing the short-range wireless standard for years, it seems, without sight nor sound of an actual Bluetooth product.

Is it time we gave up on Bluetooth? We’ve been discussing the short-range wireless standard for years, it seems, without sight nor sound of an actual Bluetooth product.

It’s kind of like USB ports — a great idea but how long before somebody comes up with a product that uses it so we can see what it’s like? Despite USB's promise as a technology, it came down to the iMac and Steve Jobs to make it as common as it is today. Will that happen with Bluetooth or should we just forget about the whole thing? Oddly enough, Bluetooth’s founding father, Ericsson, says don’t give up just yet.

First, some background. Bluetooth is a wireless transmission system that should replace cables and even infrared ports on many devices. Rather than muck about trying to hook your laptop up to a projector when you’re giving that important presentation (and spending half an hour wondering if “no signal” is some kind of sign), you simply plonk your Bluetooth-enabled laptop down next to the Bluetooth-enabled projector and go. The two will synchronise and you will be able to scroll through your 400-slide PowerPoint presentation with the greatest of ease. If some wag in the audience wants a hardcopy version, that’s just as easy — simply click on print and the Bluetooth chip will find the nearest Bluetooth printer and you’ll only have to worry about paper jams and toner levels.

That’s what they promised us back in 1994; by 1998 Ericsson had opened up the idea to an interest group that consisted of itself Nokia, IBM, Toshiba and Intel. Since then, however, we’ve had press releases and dummy chips (they’re about the size of the nail on your little finger) and not much else.

The problem is, according to Ericsson’s enterprise business head Lars Svensson, that Ericsson announced the project much earlier in its life cycle than it would normally. This was to encourage as many companies to join the venture as possible, to avoid a standards war later on. Having only one wireless system in place from the very beginning should, he claims, help speed up the development process.

According to the official Bluetooth website, today there are more than 2000 special interest group members. This is a good thing because it means we can avoid all that tedious mucking about with standards, after the fashion of the VHS v Beta, or the CD wars. But it does mean things take longer to work through as anyone who has ever sat on a committee will tell you. Two thousand members means a lot of time in discussion and, from the outside at least, a certain amount of inertia on the product development front.

But they are coming, apparently. Ericsson’s first GPRS cellphone will have Bluetooth built in, which will be nice. Now to find something to connect to.

Personally I’ll be after a Bluetoothed Palm and cellphone so my contacts can finally reside in one place and still be accessible on planes. Those all-in-one cellphone PDAs just don’t cut it for me; size is one issue but, so too, is the ability to use the PDA part whilst flying, even if it’s just for the games. Currently that’s a no no. Synchronising both devices with my PC will also be a major advantage so I guess the first real product we will need is a Bluetooth hub, preferably with a USB plug on one end to connect to my desktop.

What about security and safety issues? Security is easy — you won’t accidentally send that confidential memo or contract to the wrong printer, or worse to your neighbour’s laptop, because the chips synchronise and check with you first before doing anything. You won’t get bits of someone else’s document embedded in yours because the signal hops frequencies 1600 times a second over 79 channels, so interception could be tricky as well.

Safety is also concern. Cellphones do emit radiation, albeit in small doses, and so too will Bluetooth devices. Of course, you won’t be pressing your Bluetooth laptop or Palm to the side of your head, but a work environment like the one here at IDG, where nearly 100 people are flat out using PCs, printers, scanners, copiers and the like, will surely cook the poor inhabitants. Bluetooth's power is restricted to only 1mW for most units and 100mW for longer range devices but what will that mean when every device, including my TV remote and house key, are Bluetooth-enabled?

The legend that Bluetooth operates on the same frequency as the modern microwave oven is quite alarming when you think about it (you got mail, and third-degree burns). They operate on the same frequency band, 2.4GHz, along with devices like garage door openers. Will you get fried? No, but the build up of devices using this free access band will cause concern in the near future. France is already getting stuffy about Apple’s AirPort because it uses this frequency and is unshielded. Ericsson is already eying up the 5GHz space to colonise as well.

So it’s not quite the end for this 10th Century pirate, but if we don’t start seeing some devices soon, like this year, nails will be sharpened and coffins prepared and that would be such a shame.

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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