PC, Mac OS updates may spark Bluetooth interest

Bluetooth is set to get easier to use with PCs this year as Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. both integrate the short-range wireless technology into their client operating systems and vendors unveil a variety of new devices.

The arrival of native Bluetooth implementations for the Windows XP and Macintosh OS X 10.2 operating systems, if they work well, probably will help pull Bluetooth adoption out of a slow start, according to some analysts. Because different vendors have worked with the Bluetooth specification in different ways, users have faced interoperability problems. Device makers are likely to rally around the new implementations for PC-oriented products, making users more confident their products will work with others, analysts and industry participants say.

Bluetooth is designed as a small, low-power, low-cost technology for transmitting data among devices within a person's work area or carried on the body. It has a maximum carrying capacity of 768K bps (bits per second) over a distance of 10 meters.

Apple is set to introduce native Bluetooth support in its newest operating system, Mac OS X 10.2, which will become available Aug. 24. Microsoft will not ship its Bluetooth software stack in Service Pack 1 for Windows XP as had been expected but will deliver it in the fourth quarter or late in the third quarter, according to Charmaine Gravning, a product manager for Windows. The company has not yet decided how it will deliver the new code, she said.

The remainder of this year also will see a flood of new products that use Bluetooth, including wireless keyboards, mice, cameras and connectivity modules for handheld devices. Even Microsoft will get into the game, introducing a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, as well as a transceiver for multiple Bluetooth devices linked to a PC. Until now, the technology has been used mostly with mobile phones and phone accessories such as headsets. Now it may start to free users from the tangle of cables on their desks.

An IT executive at a real estate services company in Dallas is anxious to see Bluetooth supported in Windows XP.

"I'd like to have everything with Bluetooth so we don't have to have so many wires around. God knows we already have enough cables," said Aamir Mohiuddin, a senior vice president at Ameristar Information Network Inc., in Dallas.

Mohiuddin thinks Microsoft's introduction of its Bluetooth implementation will help encourage more vendors to ship Bluetooth-enabled products.

"Microsoft has such a big share of the market that if they're really pushing Bluetooth, there definitely will be more products out there," he said.

Microsoft last December said it planned to implement only a subset of the Bluetooth "profiles" now being used in the industry. For example, Microsoft aims to have most uses of Bluetooth devices with PCs handled by the PAN (Personal Area Network) profile, Bluetooth Program Manager Andy Glass told developers at the Bluetooth Developers Conference. Two other profiles widely used today, one for cable replacement and one for dial-up networking via a device such as a cell phone, will be supported only as legacy profiles, he said.

Given the state of interoperability among different Bluetooth implementations, Microsoft had to narrow down its choices and may be helping the industry by doing so, according to some analysts.

"For Microsoft to take the existing state of Bluetooth and embed it into XP would just be begging for trouble," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Connecticut. "Bluetooth interoperability is a complete disaster ... by and large, one Bluetooth device is not going to work with another Bluetooth device, because the specifications don't work," he said. "We need someone to take the lead with this thing and fix it."

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which oversees the standard, certifies that products comply with the standard before they can be sold with a Bluetooth logo, according to Mike McCamon, executive director of the SIG, based in Overland Park, Kansas. While the SIG leaves it up to vendors to make sure their products actually interoperate with other devices on the market, it does sponsor group testing events to that end.

McCamon welcomed Microsoft's move. Many of the problems users have encountered with devices involve not basic compatibility but differences in the user interface between different products, he said.

"Having Microsoft implement the technology in XP is going to provide a significant increase in consistency as to the way users will use Bluetooth on the PC platform," he said. Making the software user interfaces for different devices more similar would mean a big improvement for users, McCamon added.

Meanwhile, Apple is conducting interoperability testing with device vendors and will certify a list of products that work with its operating system. Its work, along with that of Microsoft, will help solve application-level problems involved in using Bluetooth with PCs, said Skip Bryan, director of marketing at Ericsson Technology Licensing, a division of L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., which pioneered Bluetooth.

Over time, Bluetooth devices for use with PCs increasingly will work with the Bluetooth stack that is in the operating system so users don't have to load another stack, just as many peripherals can be used now without the need to load drivers, analysts and vendors say. More PC makers also will incorporate Bluetooth hardware in the desktop or notebook, they said.

Bryan and McCamon cautioned that Microsoft's and Apple's Bluetooth rollouts won't have much effect on the bulk of Bluetooth devices out today, most of which are designed to work with mobile phones. However, users should expect to see more PC-related products, including Bluetooth printers and adapters that can be plugged in to a computer or printer via USB (Universal Serial Bus) or traditional serial interfaces, Bryan said. Those will come between now and the end of this year. In addition, Microsoft won't be alone in selling devices such as Bluetooth keyboards and mice. Third-party peripheral makers are bound to join the fray, he added.

Other emerging uses of Bluetooth with PCs include synchronizing handhelds and connecting to the Internet using a cell phone as a dial-up modem.

Also in the stream of products coming over the remainder of this year will be more Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, phone headsets, digital cameras and handheld computers, analysts and vendors said. Socket Communications Inc. plans to introduce a Bluetooth module for handhelds that will fit in a Secure Digital I/O (SDIO) slot, which is similar to the small SD slots that have been used for storage cards in some Palm Inc. and other handhelds.

One IT researcher who has worked with Bluetooth believes the technology will be embraced for applications far beyond mobile phones and peripherals. It could work well for small, easy-to-use home LANs, or for a universal remote control, said Dwayne Rosenburgh, an IT researcher at a U.S. government agency in Maryland.

The new software won't instantly solve all the current headaches with Bluetooth, which is still a young technology that most users have never worked with, especially in the U.S., analysts and others warn.

The coming months are likely to be "the season for the first round of Bluetooth frustration" for many users, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, who nevertheless is optimistic about Bluetooth in the long run. "Bluetooth is going to be in a funk for a while, so procrastination is probably okay for a while," he advised.

However, support on PC operating systems will help bring the technology into the mainstream, he added.

"You're going to see more and more leaders saying they support the Microsoft spec," Dulaney said.

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