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Analysis: Can Bluetooth live up to the hype?
(IDG) -- With the backing of some of the biggest names in computers and consumer electronics, the wireless voice and data technology known as Bluetooth has attracted tremendous media and consumer attention over the last 18 months.
But as the launch of the first Bluetooth products looms in the fourth quarter, even its strongest proponents are worried that hype and competing claims about what it can do could cause user confusion or at worst even sink the technology before it sets sail.
The media and consumers have flocked to demonstrations of Bluetooth technology at trade shows around the world, dozens if not hundreds of companies have fixed launch dates for products by now, and the main backers of the technology say that more than 2,000 vendors have at least expressed interest in incorporating the technology into products ranging from mobile phones to laptop computers to personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Bluetooth has the potential to let all sorts of devices link up, and its proponents paint tantalizing pictures of how it could work.
"You could have a pair of mufflers -- the headphones over your ears -- and be mowing the lawn outside, listening to your Walkman when your phone rings inside and automatically stops the music to tell you that there is a call which you can then take," suggested Christina Bjorknader, marketing and communications manager for L.M. Ericsson Telephone, a major Bluetooth backer. Her scenario continues: Depending on whether your PDA has voice capabilities, you could even check your calendar while on the phone call and add an appointment or make a change. "Once you're done with the call, you can tell the headset to hang up the phone, which will simply restart the music from where you left off and you then finish mowing the lawn, all without taking your hands off the mower," she said.
But some Bluetooth proponents warn about overselling the technology.
"People are beginning to get a little wild about what you can do with Bluetooth," said Nick Hunn, research and development director for TDK Systems Europe, at the recent Networks Telecom 2000 conference in Birmingham, U.K. Hunn, who has been involved with the development of the Bluetooth standard from the technology's inception, has also worked on incorporating Bluetooth into existing TDK products such as PC Cards, USB Adapters and network routers.
"In these early days Bluetooth won't be cheap as companies try to recoup development costs. But it's very important that we don't raise expectations to begin with. On day one, Bluetooth is a cable replacement system: don't expect anymore at first," Hunn said.
The idea behind Bluetooth is to avoid the inconvenience of cables by enabling devices such as mobile phones, PCs, printers and handheld computers to communicate with one another over short distances using low-power radio signals to transmit data. Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz frequency band and the original Bluetooth specification calls for output power of less than 10 milliwatts.
At events like Networks Telecom, vendors have stoked the hype for the technology. "My personal belief is that Bluetooth is the most exciting technology to hit this industry since GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), especially since it is so easy to use," said David Lock, commercial strategy manager for U.K. mobile phone operator Orange, at the show.
Bluetooth technology was originally designed in 1994 by two L.M. Ericsson Telephone employees, the Swedish born Sven Mattisson and his Dutch colleague, Jaap Haartsen.
Though Ericsson's Bjorknader concedes that both men have expressed concerns that vendors may try and stretch the radio technology past its limits, she said Ericsson is "not so worried about the hype."
"Ericsson hasn't seen anything yet that Bluetooth couldn't handle, which is the beauty of the technology," Bjorknader added.
However, there has been some controversy over what exactly Bluetooth is capable of. For example, whether it would make a good wireless LAN technology is the subject of debate.
Bluetooth does have the ability to provide a link on private networks -- dubbed "Piconets" -- with one master that takes up to seven slave devices. Bluetooth is billed as working at speeds of up to 721K bps (bits per second), but TDK's Hunn believes the reality will more likely be between 200K and 400K bps. Given the speed limitations, he said, most companies wanting to install new wireless networks will probably want to wait 18 months for HyperLAN2, "which is better than Bluetooth for video conference streaming anyway."
The distance over which Bluetooth can work on a practical basis is also being debated. The technology allows "frequency hopping over a spread spectrum" and supports both voice and data. "Bluetooth divides the spectrum into 79 different frequencies and jumps over any interference it encounters," Hunn said. The technology is effective as a mobile router; it can route transmissions to the PSTN (public switched telephone network) and offers low-speed wireless LAN connectivity.
And though Bluetooth was designed to work at short ranges of about 10 meters, it can work up to ranges of 100 meters. "I personally think this is a bad option because it makes things too crowded, rather like rush hour on (the U.K. highway) M25," TDK's Hunn said.
Also, he pointed out, Bluetooth uses unlicensed spectrum and will get interference from radio frequencies used by 802.11 and 802.11b wireless networking specs/protocols, from cordless telephones using the DECT (digital enhanced cordless telecommunications) standard, as well as from microwave ovens and some light bulbs using long-life technology.
Ericsson's Bjorknader does not believe that a crowded spectrum will pose any problems for Bluetooth due to its ability to achieve 1,600 hops per second. "Going up to 100 meters will not create more interference for Bluetooth. We knew it was going to be a tricky problem but Bluetooth is going to be the one that wins (in frequency traffic wars) because it changes frequencies so quickly," Bjorknader said.
But what is most important about Bluetooth is that the technology has been designed to be cheap, industry insiders agree. It currently costs about $25 for a company to incorporate Bluetooth into a product, but by the year 2004 or 2005, industry sources see that price dropping to about $5.
Bluetooth analyst Nigel Deighton, from Gartner Group, sees the low price point being key for Bluetooth's acceptance on the mass market. "Assuming that hardware vendors follow through on their promise of $5 to $6 chips in a couple of years, it will be a popular consumer product. I expect Bluetooth to hit the mass market in the first half of 2002," Deighton said.
The first five companies to officially back the Bluetooth technology with money, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba, created the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), and later the nine-member Bluetooth Promoter Group. The Bluetooth Promoter Group includes 3Com Corp, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft and Motorola, and focuses on improving the Bluetooth specification and conducting interoperability tests.
According to the Bluetooth group the most popular scenarios will most likely be connecting the laptop PC to the mobile phone; universal headsets connecting such peripheral devices such as mobile phones and Walkmans to each other; short range data transfer; and synchronization of data residing in different devices (for example, PDAs and laptops). Earlier this month, mobile phone vendor Ericsson demonstrated a WAP (wireless access protocol Bluetooth mobile phone, the tri-band T36, as well as a Bluetooth PC Card, which allows a user to connect a laptop to a mobile phone using the Bluetooth wireless connection.
The Swedish company said the products would hit the market by the fourth quarter.
Analysts such at Deighton agree that initially Bluetooth will be taken up by corporations with heavy network users who are looking to take advantage of the convenient technology as well as lose their tangle of cables. "The heavy corporate users will use the PC cards and the mobile phones."
The Bluetooth group also sees lucrative opportunities between Bluetooth and GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) high-speed network technology. GPRS enables mobile devices to remain permanently connected to the Internet and transmit data at five to 10 times the speed of current transfer rates of dial-up modems at 56K bits per second (bps). It also speeds up Bluetooth transmissions.
While Ericsson's Bjorknader predicts that Bluetooth will be a global technology straight away, TDK's Hunn believes that Bluetooth will be most important in the European market because of its dominance in wireless and mobile technologies. "For every laptop in Europe, there are 20 mobile phones. Europe is going to drive the growth in Bluetooth because of the mobile. Bluetooth will very much be a European-centric market," Hunn said.
Because of the limited mobile spectrum in Japan, Bluetooth in handheld devices is being delayed there until the launch of third-generation (3G) wireless networking technology, in 2003 or 2004. "Because the Japanese don't want any further use of the current spectrum, what will drive Bluetooth in the Japan market are consumer and sub-consumer notebooks," Hunn predicted.
The U.S. may need GPRS and 3G in order to join the Bluetooth growth curve, but again, that wouldn't happen until 2003 or 2004. "The U.S. is not a market driven by mobile technology and won't be for the next two or three years and because of that I think that (data) synchronization may be the first important use of Bluetooth there," Hunn said.
For the time being however, as Bluetooth becomes a reality, practical issues related to compatibility of products using slightly different Bluetooth specifications are raising concern. The initial standard was developed before any products existed and as developers began putting Bluetooth into devices, they invariably found bugs. As a result, there has been one revision of the Bluetooth standard called 1.0b so far, and there is another standard revision called 1.1 due in September that incorporates some 76 major changes to the standard.
But in the rush to get Bluetooth products out on the market place, companies are using the 1.0b standard and as a result, "those products won't talk to 1.1 standard -- using products released just two months later. I just hope it doesn't kill the market before it gets there," TDK's Hunn said.
Gartner's Deighton said he wouldn't be surprised if the different Bluetooth standards caused compatibility problems between devices but didn't expect incompatible Bluetooth products to be such a problem. "I would expect there would be backward compatibly built into the new devices," Deighton said.
Ericsson's Bjorknader believes that the main concern for Bluetooth will be the number of products that carry the chip and work with the technology. "We've got to make sure that we have a lot of Bluetooth products out on the market to insure interoperability. Those products are going to come in a few years but we do need more companies to announce that they are working on upcoming Bluetooth products," Bjorknader said.
The bottom line, according to Hunn, is that Bluetooth should not be oversold. Because while it is not, for example, a true wireless LAN, its potential as a very good cable replacement technology is sufficient reason to buy it.
"It makes things work easier, which is why there are so many reasons to buy Bluetooth," Hunn said.
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