Bluetooth ready to spark instant networks

DEFINITION:

Bluetooth is a low-cost, short-range radio link between laptops, mobile phones, network access points and other devices. It can replace cables and can be used to create ad hoc networks and provide a standard way to connect devices anywhere in the world.

If information appliances do outsell PCs by 2002, as market studies project, a technology called Bluetooth will come into its own. Bluetooth will connect all kinds of devices wirelessly and (its backers hope) effortlessly. At 0.1W of power and a potential cost of $8 or less per device in mass-market volume, Bluetooth is both low-powered and relatively low-priced - qualities that make it ideal for mobile appliances.

With a single, small radio chip, Bluetooth technology can replace cumbersome cable connections in all sorts of devices, from laptops to headphones to printers. It's likely to turn up in the second half of this year in some high-priced mobile phones and as an option on some laptops. On your laptop, Bluetooth will provide a simple way to wirelessly send pages to a printer or to hook up to the Internet by connecting wirelessly with your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. Your mobile phone itself could reside safely in your pocket as you have a conversation over a Bluetooth wireless headset such as one recently demonstrated by Ericsson.

But Bluetooth can do more than just replace point-to-point cables. Its supporters say a second wave of applications will follow next year. We could see Bluetooth used to join multiple devices into an instant, ad hoc network. Some envision executives in a meeting linking their handheld computers to compare agendas or to exchange virtual business cards. A speaker's laptop could wirelessly ‘squirt' its slides to an LCD projector.

Another advanced use would be Internet or LAN access points - by standing near the access point, your mobile phone or handheld could log on at a quite respectable speed of 721Kbit/sec.

Bluetooth was proposed two years ago by Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba, which formed the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). They have since been joined by almost 2000 companies. The technology is named for 10th century Danish King Harald Blaatand (Blue Tooth), who unified Scandinavia. The blue logo that will identify Bluetooth-enabled devices is derived from the runes (letters of the earliest Germanic alphabet used by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxons and modified from Greek or Roman characters to suit carving) for his initials.

How it works

Bluetooth is essentially a radio transceiver operating in a spread-spectrum mode; it changes frequency for every data packet some 1600 times per second. This synchronised frequency-hopping, together with low power that limits range to a few feet, is what enables one Bluetooth connection to avoid interfering with another. Bluetooth is, in fact, both a hardware specification and a software framework for interoperation, each designed to be implemented on a single chip.

This technology faces some major challenges before it reaches its lofty goals. There are, as yet, no Bluetooth products in stores. Only a handful of prototypes have even been demonstrated at trade shows over the past six months.

Price is a big issue at present. There's a reason infrared ports, despite their limitations, are so widely used: they're cheap. It costs only a few dollars to add them to a system, whereas Bluetooth still costs more than $30. That's irrelevant for a $2500 laptop, but it's a big problem for a $150 handheld. Standards are another problem. While the first Bluetooth applications are relatively simple, more advanced applications such as ad hoc and multipoint connections require a software standard. Two emerging technologies - Sun Microsystems' Jini and Microsoft's Universal Plug-n-Play - address this issue, but it's too soon to say whether either will emerge as a standard. Fortunately, experts say devices could support both at once. Yet another problem is radio frequency interference. Bluetooth shares its part of the radio spectrum (2.45GHz) with two other emerging standards: IEEE 802.11 - wireless Ethernet, a related but more expensive technology designed to link large numbers of PCs - and the home-networking technology HomeRF. Walk into a crowded office wearing a wireless headset, and you could potentially knock a dozen PCs off the wireless Ethernet network.

The issue may be moot when the next version of wireless Ethernet, 802.11a, moves to the 5GHz band, said Rich Nesin, manager of strategy and business development at Lucent Technologies' Microelectronics Group. But HomeRF backers are trying to get higher-bandwidth, frequency-hopping devices approved. If that happens, says Nesin, a HomeRF network next door could seriously interfere with your Bluetooth-enabled wireless phone.

Windows goes wireless

Dan Neel

Intel recently announced plans to work with Microsoft to make its Bluetooth software "native to the Windows operating environment by the first half of 2001", according to an Intel representative.

In the interim, Intel will license its current Bluetooth software stack to other vendors. The Bluetooth software stack is already compatible with Windows 98 and 2000, and offers the rudimentary Bluetooth features of file synchronisation, data transfer, dial-up networking, and the capability to identify other Bluetooth-enabled devices.

Intel also announced a new corporate division, the Wireless Products Operation, that will build Bluetooth PC adapters as well as data and voice access points that will ship to original equipment makers (OEMs) later this year.

Motorola, which is also trying to get its Bluetooth silicon into OEM devices, announced deals to supply both IBM and Toshiba with its Bluetooth technology.

With the Bluetooth interoperability specification all but shored up by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a multivendor SIG of more than 1800 companies including Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Toshiba, and others, the trick now is time to market, as the company that picks up the most momentum with its Bluetooth-enabled products stands the best chance of being the standard to follow.

But one analyst feels that mobile phone companies may have the advantage.

"I would tend to be a little doubtful that Bluetooth will be a Wintel-dominated thing," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

"The other people involved are pretty awesome players, like Nokia and Ericsson. And as Bluetooth is not just for PCs, mobile phones will probably set the standard. But the key thing here is not whether any software implementation dominates, but that you have interoperability from all different vendors."

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