Microsoft joins Bluetooth push for standard

Microsoft and three other large companies joined the Bluetooth Special Interest Group on Wednesday, more than a year after the organisation was founded.

Bluetooth is a set of protocols for devices for wireless communication over short distances among devices such as handheld computers, laptops, PCs and mobile phones.

All told there are about 1,200 companies in the SIG.

Microsoft and 3Com, Lucent Technologies and Motorola joined the SIG as part of the "promoter group" that has already included Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba.

The participation of the latest large vendors was especially important to developers at Comdex 99 who wondered why Microsoft, especially, would ignore a process that could greatly impact use of Microsoft operating systems in all kinds of devices.

Many end users barely understand the world of Bluetooth and what the emerging wireless data transmission standard promises for linking laptops, cell phones and handheld computers over short distances.

Bluetooth could make possible what experts are calling the personal-area network by allowing users to transmit small amounts of data at about 1M bit/sec. up to about 10 metres over the 2.4-GHz radio frequency.

But analysts warn that transmissions from Bluetooth-enabled devices could jam transmissions over wireless local-area networks that use the 802.11 standard, resulting in very slow transmission speeds for users on both networks but mainly on 802.11 LANs.

Although 802.11 use is relatively rare, such jamming could cause messy problems for organisations that use the standard. Then there are other problems vendors in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are working on but haven't answered. For example, how does a user know that when a Bluetooth-ready laptop or cell phone is turned off, the Bluetooth data transmission capability is also turned off, thus preventing improper data transmissions?

Only one Bluetooth device has been shown and is scheduled to ship in mid-2000. Demonstrated at Comdex/Fall '99 in Las Vegas last month, the Bluetooth Headset by Research Triangle Park, NC-based Ericsson connects wirelessly to a mobile phone. That allows hands-free calling by transmitting to a phone inside a briefcase across the room.

Bluetooth chips will be shipped in as many as 20 million laptops by the end of next year, analysts said, adding as much as $70 to the cost of each machine. The number of Bluetooth-equipped notebooks could rise to 34 million in 2003, said Joyce Putscher, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. Counting non-PC devices such as digital cameras and cars, she predicted 200 million Bluetooth devices by 2003.

In addition to connections to phones, PCs and printers, workers with laptops could assemble in conference rooms and using Bluetooth reach a wireless hub in the room that could connect them to the wireline corporate LAN, provided the device connecting to the wireline LANis Bluetooth-enabled.

"The world could live without Bluetooth, but every user will want it for convenience and personal style," instead of using a cable or infrared port for connecting devices, said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.

Putscher said conflicts between Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless networks will be "insignificant" once Bluetooth products hit market. However, several other analysts predicted technical problems could delay rollout.

Like Bluetooth, the 802.11 wireless LAN allows transmissions along the 2.4-GHz band, but it works at faster speeds of at least 2M bit/sec. in LANs from 50 to several hundred feet, with transmission speed declining at greater distances, analysts said.

Such 802.11 LANs are relatively rare, but are used by companies such as Dell Computer in Rock Spring, Texas, to allow workers to share data.

Bluetooth devices avoid jamming each other by using "frequency hopping" to find an unused channel for data. But 802.11-enabled devices transmit across three separate channels, using each band to ensure transmission. The two methods are incompatible, although Dulaney said efforts are under way to build a glue between the two, known as 802.16.

Meanwhile, analysts advise ITshops to test Bluetooth devices, once available, within existing wireless networks and to be sure the Bluetooth can be shut off easily if problems develop.

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