LAS VEGAS -- At Comdex Fall 2000 this week, attendees will finally get a look at what the short-range radio link called Bluetooth is actually good for - even in corporate networks.
Vendors will display an array of laptops, PDAs, cell phones and printers -- and heaven knows what else -- using Bluetooth to send files back and forth, print documents and dial in to the Internet.
IBM will have its laptops and PDAs handling exactly such tasks. Motorola will offer its Timeport 270 cell phone with a Bluetooth interface and a V.90 modem married with a Bluetooth radio, aimed at laptops. Ericsson, which invented Bluetooth, will show off a Bluetooth cell phone and headset, due out by year-end. Intel will let attendees at three laptops, linked in what's called a Bluetooth "pico net," play the popular "Quake" multipoint network game.
Some vendors are taking a big step beyond this. Companies such as Red-M, the U.K. subsidiary of Madge Networks, will demonstrate Bluetooth access points and servers that can connect Bluetooth-equipped devices to corporate LANs and intranets.
The vendors' technologies will be shown at the Bluetooth Pavilion at the Las Vegas Convention Center and at another showcase at the Venetian Resort.
Not just a cable replacement
The idea of Bluetooth as a network access technology, an overlay on existing corporate data and voice networks, has been percolating for some time. It's a far cry from the cable replacement idea originated by engineers at Ericsson, the Swedish cell phone giant.
"Most see Bluetooth as replacing cables between, say, a headset and a cell phone, or a PDA and a PC," says Simon Gawne, vice president of marketing at Red-M in Wexham, U.K. "We think there will be a need for a managed network infrastructure that lets these devices share information in a controlled way. Bluetooth lets you create a local wireless structure for accessing voice and data services."
Red-M's access points and servers are intended to form such infrastructures.
Red-M is working with a financial services company, which Gawne wouldn't name, that wants to use a Bluetooth network to keep its traders constantly linked to trading data, alerts and messages.
This advanced vision of Bluetooth is fueling the launch of a brand-new industry: Bluetooth service providers. One is Cerulic, of Portland, Ore., which is building, with several unnamed partners in addition to Red-M, what it calls a carrier-class, public-access Bluetooth network that will be installed in airports, hotels and convention centers. Business professionals who do lots of traveling presumably will be willing to pay a monthly fee to instantly link with corporate networks and the Internet.
"These [Bluetooth] access points can be easily attached to existing corporate networks," says Nigel Ballard, Cerulic's vice president of product strategy. "They receive Bluetooth in one end and send standard Ethernet [media access control] packets out the back end."
Ballard predicts a tidal wave of Bluetooth-equipped products, initially with snap-in cards. The value of Bluetooth connectivity will rise as more devices can share data and applications, and rise further as this data and these applications can be shared with information on the corporate network, he adds.
But even supporters of the technology are cautious about some of the Bluetooth nnetwork scenarios, and especially any suggestion that Bluetooth could succeed as a wireless LAN. Bluetooth runs at 720K bit/sec, and doesn't let users move through different zones and still stay connected, a feature called "roaming," says Ron Sperano, program director for mobile market development at IBM. By contrast, existing 802.11b wireless LANs run at 11M bit/sec and handle roaming users.
Security for Bluetooth remains a stubborn problem, as even Cerulic's Ballard acknowledges. "Nothing is 100% secure," he points out. Gartner Group warned in September that corporate users need to ensure that vendors have made their products secure. Bluetooth has a discovery protocol that lets devices automatically find each other and even start interacting. Gartner warns that in such cases, users can unintentionally expose access and data to unauthorized users.
Interference in the 2.4-GHz band is another worry because that band of unlicensed spectrum is also used by 802.11b LANs and devices such as microwave ovens. Bluetooth conducts fast, clean hopping over the frequencies in the band to minimize interference.
"If the projections [of Bluetooth devices] come through, with billions of devices in a few years, you can anticipate some problems in certain areas," says Ander Edlund, marketing director for Bluetooth at Ericsson Mobile Communications.
The Bluetooth Special Interest Group is continually testing for interference, according to a statement by Intel, a SIG member. "Bluetooth will not 'stomp all over 802.11' [though] there may be a chance of performance degradation," the statement read.