Bluetooth arrives

Socket Communications' Bluetooth Card works with most cellular phones. It's priced at $179.

Top: Axis Communication's 5810 Print Plug acts as a server to desktop printers. It's priced at $199. Below: 3Com Corp.'s Bluetooth PC USB adapter works with Windows and Mac OS. It's priced at $150.

Devices can make wireless personal networks a reality

If the goal of computing is to liberate users, Bluetooth devices could have a lot to contribute, by freeing them from the shackles of cables cluttering their offices.

The specification is designed to create a 'personal area network' among your devices, allowing the sharing of information and connection of peripherals.

If you have a personal digital assistant with Bluetooth, for example, it can print wirelessly on a Bluetooth-enabled printer and synchronize data with a desktop computer that has Bluetooth. Put your Bluetooth-equipped notebook computer next to a Bluetooth phone, and, presto, you can dial out for wireless e-mail and Internet access.

Some Bluetooth promoters say it even can offer Internet access and intra-office roaming capabilities to compete with IEEE 802.11-based networks in terms of speed, coverage and costs. (See GCN, April 1, Page 52 for a discussion of the various 802.11 standards now on the market.)

However it shakes out, the one thing notable about Bluetooth in 2002, as opposed to previous years, is that it's here, with products that people can actually buy and use.

Those products are entering a field crowded with devices using other standards'HomeRF, Wi-Fi (the 802.11b standard) and infrared, to name three'but Bluetooth advocates claim it has advantages. Among them are that prices for the transmitter chips are falling, the system consumes little power and, unlike infrared, Bluetooth can transmit through walls, fabric and leather: your PDA can 'dial' the Internet even if your phone is in a briefcase.

'We are right on the cusp of just massive Bluetooth deployment,' said Troy Holtby, a product manager specializing in Bluetooth devices at 3Com Corp.

Bluetooth products range from handheld computers to printers to phones. Bluetooth PC Cards are available for notebook and desktop PCs, as are Universal Serial Bus adapters.

'It's the combination of all the little things Bluetooth is going to do that [will] make it indispensable,' Holtby said. 'One is just getting rid of the 30 cables that are on my desk.'

Holtby gave the example of a wireless Internet service that added a proprietary modem to his Palm OS device. Once he decided to change PDAs, that modem became useless.

In contrast, a Bluetooth PDA can use a connection to a cellular phone to dial an Internet provider and accomplish the same e-mail and Web browsing that his Internet service allowed'but without the added expense of a modem that might become obsolete.

Getting the message

According to Joyce Putscher, director of the Converging Markets and Technologies Group at analyst In-Stat/MDR of Scottsdale, Ariz., end users are getting the Bluetooth message.

'We have done consumer surveys over the last several years, and we're seeing a trend that the knowledge base of people having heard the word Bluetooth is significantly increasing. The interest in a cordless type of connectivity is there,' she said.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question for Bluetooth will be how well it competes against Wi-Fi.

'I see them as complimenting technologies,' said Eyal Reshef, vice president of marketing for Bluetooth manufacturer Tadlys Ltd. of Rehovot, Israel, whose U.S. distributor is Talla-Com Industries Inc. of Tallahassee, Fla.

'Wi-Fi is very good for laptops and even for PDAs, but we see some problems in PDAs because of the power-consumption question,' Reshef said.

'We have a customer in Sweden with 802.11-based handheld computers, and in the middle of the day their people have dead batteries. That's because 802.11 can have 15 times more consumption in standby and three to four times more in receive/transmit mode than does Bluetooth.'

No more wires

As PDAs become more common in the workplace, however, users will want wireless access to their enterprise networks and even the Internet from their handhelds, creating a need for industrial-strength Bluetooth networks, Reshef predicted.

He also sees the technology as a good public-area solution for airports, hotels, hospitals and similar spaces.

'In a busy network, users will get the same or slightly higher bandwidth with Bluetooth' as they will with Wi-Fi, Reshef said.

Steve Gallagher, director of business development for wireless software maker Red-M of Wooburn Green, U.K., said, 'In the enterprise market, Bluetooth is a technology that the enterprise environment is embracing as a compliment to the wireless LAN system that is in place. Typically in an enterprise you have a Wi-Fi network that is PC-centric.

'Now, customers are demanding they have this wireless functionality when they leave their desk or are traveling without a laptop.'

IDC analyst Alex Slawsby, in Framingham, Mass., however, disagreed. He said Wi-Fi's range is better for the enterprise, although Bluetooth has its place.

'I expect Bluetooth to take more of a synchronization role,' Slawsby said, while noting that in some cases Bluetooth could be used for personal messaging.

'Palm has demonstrated some cool collaboration software and chat applications,' he noted.

Yet Wi-Fi networking can involve more effort than some users will want to engage in when just visiting a colleague's office: knowledge of specific network addresses and passwords might be required to transfer a file or print a document.

By contrast, 3Com's Holtby said, Bluetooth users working with compatible devices 'can immediately transfer files to another computer or print out hard copy. There's no access to LAN or IP address and no security exposure.'

Wireless traffic does have its problems, though. Bluetooth backers admit that some interference may take place when Bluetooth and 802.11 access points are in close proximity. The result might be a slowdown in some transmissions, even if only a small one.

And security is something that Bluetooth backers have to iron out. Its use of PINs and encryption keys that can be known to more than one user leaves its transmission open to someone who wants to listen in.

Bluetooth obviously isn't for secure communications. But for data synchronization, Internet access and many other PDA functions, devices making use of its wireless capabilities could still come in handy.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Marina Del Rey, Calif. E-mail him at [email protected].

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