Bluetooth teething troubles

Sadly for 3Com's Shaun Paice, it was a fairly typical demonstration of a dazzling new technology. Paice was showing just how easy it was to link two laptops using the long-awaited miracle of wireless communication.

Paice - from 3Com's research centre in Hemel Hempstead, England - confidently set up his two laptops, each armed with spanking new Bluetooth cards, on opposite corners of the large booth, fully expecting them to bond like a couple of old girlfriends. Then the dreaded demon of demos struck. The two devices ignored each other completely.

"It even happens to Bill Gates," said Paice bravely, as he shuttled between laptops, pounding the keyboards with increasing desperation.

It was probably only a minor glitch that prevented Paice's Bluetooth cards from communicating at December's Bluetooth conference in Silicon Valley. But for industry veterans used to technological marvels that fail to live up to their hype, the foul-up gave warning of problems that might beset the next great hope of the European technology world. Can Bluetooth really fulfil expectations for a seamless "unplug and play" experience between any and every electronic gizmo, from mobile phone to petrol pump, from camera to printer? Will it really meet analysts' predictions that 1.4 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will be manufactured in 2004 - up from a handful last year?

And what about security? Not to mention frequency clashes with the popular 802.11 wireless network protocol - an overlapping technology that, largely in America, is already standard equipment in many offices, factories and airport lounges, allowing workers to carry their laptops from cubicle to canteen to conference room, without ever disconnecting from the company's network.

Finally, even if Bluetooth is a success, how many of the more than 2,000 companies currently developing Bluetooth devices can realistically expect to be doing business a few years from now? Not too many, says Jack Quinn, a Bluetooth analyst and author of a report called Bluetooth 2001 - The World Market, which is selling briskly to industry experts despite a price tag of US$1,885 (2,020 euros). "Just look at the Internet start-ups and what happened to them," Quinn cautions. "It's impossible for more than 10 percent of those companies to be successful. There will be a wave of consolidation and bankruptcy."

Terry Novick, an analyst for Mobile Insights, a Silicon Valley-based mobile computing analysis firm, says: "The shakeout is inevitable. It all depends on things like whose software stack is adopted and who forms alliances with whom."

But the Silicon Valley Bluetooth conference was untroubled by such misgivings. The event's title - The Creation Of A World Without Wires - reflected the optimism that pervades the Bluetooth sector. Compared to last year, the confab attracted double the number of participants and was sold out months in advance. The talk on the conference floor was all about 2001 being the start of the Bluetooth revolution. And many of the accents were Scandinavian, English and Irish, reflecting the strong technological lead that European companies enjoy in what may prove to be as significant a technology as mobile phones.

Quinn backs this analysis with an amazingly steep adoption curve, and insists his figures are among the most conservative in the industry. At first, he predicts, Bluetooth will be used in what are little more than geek executive toys. About 5 million of Bluetooth devices are forecast to be bought by the end of 2001: 2 million mobile phones, a further 1.8 million phone headsets, and the rest largely laptop cards. By 2002, the figure should climb to 45 million, followed by 181 million the next year, 527 million in 2003 and 1.2 billion in 2005, he says.

This potential impact has helped win over former Bluetooth sceptics like Novick, who now believes that it will be remembered as one of the definitive technologies of the mobile age: "A lot of people have jumped on the Bluetooth bandwagon, but it really can change everything," she says. "Invisible synchronisation just by being close to everything - it's astounding. I want it now."

But Novick is well aware of the delays in getting Bluetooth to market, given the immense complexity of designing a system that hopes to be a wireless interpreter of information between all kinds of electronic devices. "It's taking so long because it's so complicated. I applaud companies for holding back until they get it right."

If and when that happens, companies will rush to give their workforces the benefits of total digital mobility. As prices fall, Bluetooth will enter homes, cars, toys, washing machines and ticket booths, becoming the invisible but universal coupling joint of digital devices.

"Every company had better be looking at wireless and figuring out how to integrate it into the organization. If you aren't, your competitors certainly are," Novick advises.

She raves about the myriad of Bluetooth-enabled devices that will create an invisible network surrounding you everywhere. "It will always be there in the background, making life easier. Bluetooth and 802.11 are the key things that will allow us to see a return on investment from all our mobile devices."

These shining visions of our Bluetoothed future assume, of course, that engineers will solve some of Bluetooth's technical problems that could inhibit its mass adoption. Bluetooth transmits on the 2.4MHz frequency and can cause serious disruptions to 802.11 local area networks (LANs). Bluetooth investors say that high-powered teams from companies such as Intel and Motorola have been deployed to lick the problem.

Companies will also have to bring prices down drastically if they want the technology to be widely adopted. The cheapest Bluetooth devices currently cost more than $100 (about 110 euros). That might be acceptable for early adopters, but for Bluetooth to penetrate the mass market - and that means mobile phones - it will have to come down to about $5. Even given improvements in the technology and savings from mass production, that will be a tall order.

A more daunting prospect may be the gaping security breaches that Bluetooth could blow open. Companies have diligently set up almost impregnable firewalls, but wireless networking technologies can open a window wide enough for infiltrators to get in easily. The problem is that encryption is generally effective in inverse proportion to the level of convenience in communication. Bluetooth is simply scrambled, spreading its data over numerous different spectrums, rather than encrypted in complex algorithms, in what many experts regard as an open invitation to eavesdroppers.

Pandora's box

"Bluetooth will open a Pandora's box of security issues," says James Atkinson, a leading expert on electronic surveillance and director of the security Web site TCMS.com. He quotes a tenet of his trade that "convenience and security can never go together," and argues that any form of wireless communication is easily penetrated unless incredibly sophisticated and expensive countermeasures are taken. For him, the Bluetooth architecture contains none of these precautions.

"A couple of high-school kids with a scanner and a soldering iron could crack it in minutes," he scoffs. "It wouldn't even slow down a professional. Bluetooth has no security. It just has an illusion of security."

Atkinson claims that Bluetooth companies are deliberately hiding this information to increase marketability. "The public is screaming for it, so the Bluetooth companies will give it to them. But it's no more secure than the first mobile phone and about the only thing it's safe against is nursery school children. A company that values its security will not be using wireless communications." Or, in the words of a report by analyst Martin Reynolds at research house Gartner: "From a security perspective, Bluetooth is a disaster waiting to happen." The danger is not only of a nasty hacker clawing into the personal area network (PAN) that Bluetooth will create around you. The potential for destructive viruses increases too, because Bluetooth allows so many devices to chat to each other.

High-tech gymnastics

Experts from Bluetooth companies dismiss these fears as alarmist and paint visions of the high-tech gymnastics that Bluetooth will be able to perform. They construct dazzling scenarios in which the synching of telephone numbers between mobile phone and PC will be child's play.

Imagine walking into hotel business lounges and printing pictures from your digital camera on a local printer at the touch of a button. Or picture yourself mowing the lawn while listening to music through earphones that are jacked in to the phone line. When you get a call, the mower stops, the music switches to a phone feed and - with voice recognition capabilities - the appointment you make is automatically scheduled in your PDA.

Such complex capabilities are no doubt an enticing sales tool, but Bluetooth developers must be careful they don't oversell their technology, warns Dr Michael Foley, Microsoft's Bluetooth guru. As the wireless architect at the company charged with designing much of the cross-platform integration, Foley is cautious about the kind of miracles we can expect. "The holy grail of inter-operability between every device and every application is never going to be reached," he cautions. "It's an exponential equation that's impossible from a mathematical standpoint. But if you stick to cable replacement, it will work just fine."

Thus, at the very least, Bluetooth will take a large bite from the dreaded jungle of wires that snake behind countless computers, VCRs and hi-fi stacks. For many consumers and IT managers, that promise alone will be enough to justify the entire Bluetooth extravaganza.

That prediction also sounds right to Falk Muller-Veerse, an analyst at hi-tech investment boutique Durlacher. "Synchronisation issues still need solving," he says. "The devices can see each other but not talk. They have a central nervous system but no brain." He believes that unless Bluetooth allows machines to understand each other's languages, the technology's promise will remain unfulfilled. "I don't think it's going to be as revolutionary as people say. It has been overhyped and it's not going to change our lives overnight."

But some of the biggest names in technology appear to be betting otherwise. The Bluetooth effort is led by a posse of technology giants: 3Com Corp., L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., IBM Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., Microsoft Corp., Motorola Inc. and Toshiba Corp., while the Bluetooth Special Interests Group (SIG) includes over 2,000 companies trying to get their products to engage in digital intercourse.

Muller-Veerse believes that although the large number of companies involved might seem like the embodiment of "co-opetition" (that byword of modern corporate strategy), it has some serious drawbacks. "You have thousands of companies all trying to get their own specifications adopted as the standard," he points out. "The big companies should have defined the standards earlier."

Many companies may just be along for the ride - anxious to have chips on the table in case Bluetooth wins big, but not playing any high-stake hands. "There are very few large companies focusing only on Bluetooth," Muller-Veerse observes. "And there aren't even that many start-ups devoted to the technology."

But from the vantage point of Alan Woolhouse, VP of marketing at Cambridge Silicon Radio, Bluetooth is anything but a bubble. The British company's Bluecore single-chip Bluetooth technology recently attracted a $50 million (53.6 million euros) investment from companies including Sony, Compaq and Phillips on the way to a stock market flotation that may value the company at over $1.5 billion (1.6 billion euros). A start-up in 1998, CSR now has over 120 employees - up from only 30 in March 2000 - and is aiming for 200 more by the end of the year. The company is already selling chips for $8 (8.58 euros) apiece in orders of a million plus, and is negotiating new contracts to sell tens of millions by the end of the year.

"The market is huge," says Woolhouse. "It's the most dynamic part of the IT industry. Everyone is in it - from established players to tiny start-ups." Which sounds uncannily like what was said about WAP.

Has Bluetooth bitten off more than it can chew?

First developed by two Ericsson engineers in 1994, Bluetooth is a wireless technology named after Harald Bluetooth, the 10th-century Viking king who united Denmark and Norway after a series of bloody wars.

The mission facing the modern Bluetooth may prove just as tough: the technology aims to link billions of electronic devices into a seamless, convenient and ubiquitous digital network. The Bluetooth design is based on tiny radio transmitters that can be built into almost any electronic device and transmit over the unregulated 2.4MHz frequency - the same spectrum as microwaves and the rival mobile networking protocol widely known as 802.11.

The stated aim is for Bluetooth to work within a 10-metre radius, though Ericsson engineers say that eventually there is no reason why the range couldn't be extended up to 100 metres. Bluetooth software will build protocol stacks to allow all these different devices not only to transmit data but to understand each others' languages and implement commands.

But there's a long way to go before Bluetooth ties everything together. Initially, it will just be a cable replacement technology. That annoying wire between your mobile phone and your earpiece? Bluetooth can take care of it with a chip in the phone and another in the headset. Soon after it will also be able to turn your phone into a wireless modem to your laptop, which will be fitted with its own Bluetooth device. Bluetooth could also rid us of those masses of cables that snake from the back of desktop computers to printers, scanners, keyboards, monitors, mice, microphones and speakers.

Bluetooth creates a personal area network (PAN) that envelops all your gadgets in an invisible digital bubble. Power cords, however, will remain the mess they are today; as will the cable jungle behind TVs, videos and stereos. But it will be possible to synch your addresses, appointments and to-do lists among your various computers, phones and PDAs.

Critics have suggested that Bluetooth is little more than a glorified version of the infra-red communicators that we already have on our laptops and handhelds. These, while undoubtedly useful for exchanging information, are not exactly making anyone's earth move. But, according to the evangelists, it is when Bluetooth breaks free of the PAN to manage data communications between strangers that the picture gets interesting.

The goal is for Bluetooth to enable a kind of digital orgy, where myriad devices immediately locate each other and get intimate. Companies are already making Bluetooth vending machines that can automatically charge your phone, and petrol pumps that identify your car and charge your credit card. There will also be Bluetooth access points that let users connect to corporate networks, and Bluetooth cameras that allow you to download in seconds to PCs and printers. At home, Bluetooth will network all electronic devices, automatically turning the stereo down when the phone rings or warming up your car from your phone on cold winter mornings.

Its backers contend that Bluetooth is such a powerful technology that it's impossible to predict the new patterns of behaviour it will initiate. But they promise it will make the world of digital devices more than a mere sum of its parts, and turn a previously obscure Viking king into one of the best known monarchs in history.

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