Opinion: A crack in Bluetooth

A small crack appeared in Bluetooth this week. Xircom, now an Intel company, released an IEEE 802.11b wireless Ethernet adapter for the PalmOS-based Handspring Visor.

Take your Visor handheld, put the Xircom adapter, about the size of a deck of cards, into the Visor's SpringPort expansion slot, and switch it on. The 2.4-GHz radio finds a nearby IEEE 802.11b access point, which connects on the backend to your corporate LAN.

Your handheld computer has just become a full IP peer on that LAN, over a shared wireless connection with a maximum bandwidth of 11M bit/sec at a range of about 100 feet. The wireless LAN will let you roam anywhere in a building or campus, passing your connection from one access point to another seamlessly.

SpringPort modules carry their own power supply. The Xircom adapter has one Lithium-Ion battery, and Xircom's marketing blurb says it will run the wireless link continuously for two hours before needing a recharge.

The suggested retail price is $299, which is pricey compared to the $179 for Xircom's existing Type II PC Card 802.11b adapter for Windows-based computers, including the handheld PocketPC. But given the trend in devices of this type, it's likely the Visor adapter module will drop in price, and sooner rather than later.

Later this month, Xircom is supposed to ship a $149 Bluetooth adapter: a Type II card that will work on Windows computers -- except for Windows CE and PocketPCs. Bluetooth is being touted as a way to let handheld devices share information with each other and to bridge to corporate LANs. This card includes a low-power (one milliwatt) Bluetooth radio with a range of about 33 feet and a throughput of under 1M bit/sec.

Bluetooth is being touted as a way to let handheld devices share information with each other and to bridge to corporate LANs. And there will undoubtedly soon be Bluetooth modules for the Visor, as there will be for Palm Inc.'s own handhelds.

But the question some people are going to start asking is, "Why would I buy a Bluetooth wireless interface, when for some amount more I can get a wireless Ethernet interface with six to 10 times the throughput, and three times the range?"

A lot of the feverish hype over Bluetooth has rested on the assumption that IEEE 802.11b LAN interfaces were too big, too expensive, and too power-hungry to fit into handheld devices. But that's being disproved by companies like Xircom, and Socket Communications, which also offers a Type II card for PocketPCs, this one priced at $139. A Bluetooth interface card for PocketPC is due from Socket this summer.

Another Bluetooth assumption is that wireless LANs would remain, well, LANs. Those things that are woven into the very fabric of a building -- networks that, in effect, take root. But if 802.11b components are on the same downward price/performance curve as Bluetooth components, it's pretty easy to see them appearing in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Agere Systems, part of Lucent, claims to be now shipping about 300,000 IEEE 802.11b radios a month, and working tightly with telcos and carriers planning to deploy in 2002 a range of services based on them.

We may indeed eend up, one day, with lots of Bluetooth radios embedded in everything from handheld computers to espresso makers. But will they be used? Or will they become just the radio version of IrDA (you know: that little infrared gizmo on your laptop, the one you never use)? It may be that the enterprise will do its real work with 802.11b radios embedded almost as widely as Bluetooth, creating the network for grownups.

This story, "Opinion: A crack in Bluetooth" was originally published by Network World.

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