A touch of gray in Bluetooth's silver lining

After years of hype that promised seamless, short-range wireless connectivity among handheld devices, Bluetooth is showing signs of having overcome some of the early problems associated with the technology. But are growing adoption and gradual technical improvements enough to save Bluetooth from being overcome by advances in wireless technology?

At first glance, technical improvements and shipment numbers look promising for Bluetooth's future. Vendors are shipping 1 million Bluetooth-enabled devices, mostly cell phones, every week, according to Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). The majority of those Bluetooth-enabled products -- 65 percent -- are being sold in Europe, with 25 percent shipping to Asia and 10 percent to the Americas, he said.

"Bluetooth is getting quite good adoption currently in cell phones and even in laptops as well," said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Intel Corp.

And as adoption spreads, the technology continues to be improved, although some usage issues remain unresolved. Bluetooth SIG announced on Nov. 5 the adoption of Bluetooth Specification Version 1.2, which adds several new features, including faster connections between devices and adaptive frequency hopping, which is designed to reduce interference with other wireless devices. Devices based on the latest Bluetooth specification are expected to begin appearing on the market over the next few months, it said.

"In many regards, (Bluetooth's) been complex and not been well tested, so there have been a number of usage model issues around it, but those seem to be resolved," Gelsinger said.

IBM Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. are among the companies that have begun selling notebook computers that offer Bluetooth connectivity, and the technology has also begun finding its way into other hardware devices.

Taiwan's LiteOn Technology Corp. has developed a Personal Media Gateway, called PMG100, that is designed to function as a single cellular gateway for a variety of portable Bluetooth-enabled devices, including a handheld messaging terminal and a phone.

Incorporating support for GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks, the PMG100 looks to be slightly larger than a deck of cards and includes a micro-router and micro-server capabilities, according to information posted on the company's Web site.

Further details of the device were not available as it is still under development, according to Jessica Chou, a spokeswoman for LiteOn in Taipei.

Logitech Inc., a major vendor of cordless devices that use older 27MHz radio frequency technology, has introduced several Bluetooth devices since September. Bluetooth, like 802.11b or Wi-Fi technology, uses frequencies in the 2.4GHz spectrum. It has become more attractive as the installed base grows and the price of chips has declined with higher volumes, according to Alexis Richard, Logitech's product marketing manager for Bluetooth systems. But he still says it's too complicated for many users.

"We know that Bluetooth still has some limitations. I think it's still for early adopters; it is not a mainstream technology yet," Richard said. "I will not give my grandmother a Bluetooth keyboard today. I think it's really for early adopters who aspire to own a Bluetooth device, (such as) a Bluetooth phone, and want to do more with this kind of product."

One of the factors that has slowed the adoption of Bluetooth in recent years is the complexity of the technology, in which the Bluetooth specification defines basic connectivity but specific uses require separate "profiles." Not all Bluetooth-enabled devices support all the profiles, which can lead to confusion for buyers who may expect a Bluetooth PC adapter, for example, to do things it isn't set up for. And there are other issues as well.

Bluetooth's growing pains go beyond confusion over usage profiles, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney. The user interfaces for software and even the terms used in product manuals vary among different vendors, he said. Problems will persist but Bluetooth should become a mainstream technology, at least for simple uses, he said. That may happen in a year or 18 months, he said.

Eventually vendors will make the user experience more consistent. "It'll take a lot of calls to the customer service department and then they'll finally get it," Dulaney said.

Today, Bluetooth is reasonably easy to use between two products from the same vendor, and for some simple functions such as getting a headset to work with a phone. But an application such as synchronizing a phone or handheld device with a PC is still too complicated for the average consumer, Dulaney said.

And then there is the issue of cost. Bluetooth remains more expensive than 27MHz technology, though the gap has narrowed over the past year, Logitech's Richard said. The estimated street price of Logitech's Bluetooth mouse is US$99, compared to $69 for a similar product using 27MHz. The extra value customers get from Bluetooth lies in the hub Logitech supplies with the mouse and a corresponding keyboard, both introduced in October. The hub, which uses a driver from Widcomm Inc., can support a wide variety of uses, Richard said.

For example, the hub comes with software that gives a notification on the PC screen when there is a new text message sent to a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Clicking on an icon then allows the user to start exchanging text messages with the sender using the PC keyboard instead of the phone keypad.

Widcomm, the driver vendor, moved to expand the usefulness of Bluetooth devices by adding support for several profiles in a major driver upgrade in June. The BTW (Bluetooth for Windows) 1.4 software includes profiles for interface devices such as keyboards and mice and for personal area networks such as ad hoc groups of coworkers with portable devices, according to Rajiv Kumar, co-founder and chief technology officer of Widcomm. Several other device makers, in addition to Logitech, are using the software.

While Bluetooth has overcome some of the complexity and usage issues that have held back adoption of the technology and costs are coming down, Bluetooth's future prospects are restrained by limited bandwidth of around 500K bps (bits per second), Intel's Gelsinger said.

"If I want to load images from my camera into my PC it would be extremely slow to do that over a Bluetooth connection," Gelsinger said.

This is where Bluetooth faces a challenge from emerging short-range wireless networking technologies, such as Ultra Wideband (UWB). UWB technology was first developed in the 1980s and is used in some types of radar. More recently, the technology has been considered for high-speed, short-range wireless communications.

"We think (UWB) will have some of the same characteristics of Bluetooth, being short-range, low-power, but will be able to do it at much higher bandwidth," said Gelsinger, adding Intel believes UWB will offer bandwidth of up to 500M bps.

"UWB is really a far better technology for the short range," said Johnny Shih, the chairman and CEO of Asustek Computer Inc., one of the world's largest manufacturers of computing hardware, which makes laptops, motherboards and PDAs (personal digital assistants), among other products.

Despite the great promise of UWB, there are drawbacks to the technology. One of the problems is that UWB does not have regulatory approval in many countries outside the U.S., according to the Ultra Wideband Working Group (UWBWG). That means that UWB-enabled devices cannot be sold or used in these countries.

"However, there is significant interest in many countries and steps are being taken to explore a number of foreign markets and regulatory processes," according to the UWBWG's Web site.

At the product level, Logitech's Richard said UWB isn't ready to go into products but said the company has been studying it. "We're not saying Bluetooth is the winner and that's the way it will be for the next 10 years. We don't know. But today, that's the way it is," he said.

Even if UWB does replace Bluetooth at some point in the future, vestiges of the technology could remain in use for many years to come, Gelsinger said. "Our goal with (UWB) would be to use all of the software that Bluetooth has developed, all of the upper layer stack of the protocol, and just put a new physical layer underneath it," he said.

"I believe in the long run, UWB may replace Bluetooth, but I think it will still exist for quite a while," Shih said.

However, not everyone believes that Bluetooth will be replaced by UWB. Gartner's Dulaney said the greater bandwidth offered by UWB is not necessary for most of the applications Bluetooth was designed to handle. In addition, many Bluetooth-enabled devices don't make full use of the bandwidth that Bluetooth offers. Vendors should focus on improving the usability of Bluetooth instead of looking to new technologies as a replacement for Bluetooth, he said.

"It's not too late for Bluetooth," Dulaney said.

-- Tom Krazit, in Boston, contributed to this report.

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