Bluetooth comes close to the wireless ideal: Just a single device for all communications
I'VE CHANGED MY mind about Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology standards that will allow users to connect peripherals. For example, if you had both a Bluetooth-enabled PDA (personal digital assistant) and a cell phone, you could use the cell phone as a wireless connection to send files from your PDA.
I used to think that Bluetooth was a dead end. After all, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't approve it for use on planes -- they still haven't -- and it collides with everything from microwave ovens to 802.11, the standard specification for wireless LANs. In addition, the chip sets are pricey.
We all saw with what tenacity the industry, particularly system OEMs and hard drive manufacturers, resisted IEEE 1394 (Firewire) because they did not want to invest in a new, albeit higher-performance, technology. Firewire is now in the Sony PlayStation, so it may have a life as a standard high-speed way to connect the modules in a home entertainment center. But IEEE 1394 as a PC technology is dead.
Nevertheless, Bluetooth will succeed for one simple reason. It almost gives us what I am now convinced we can never have: a single, all-purpose device that we can take and use everywhere.
Bluetooth allows us to have the next best thing: a virtual single device. I call it virtual because Bluetooth will give users access to the same information as if all of that information were stored on only one device.
If the only two devices we needed were a cell phone and a PDA, then surely at some point they would converge. But it is obvious that technology is not going in that direction. Instead, more and more devices are becoming digitally enabled, which in turn is giving us more -- not fewer -- services that we want to access.
At Comdex, for example, Bill Gates showed off a prototype tablet PC ostensibly for the home; it will become, among other things, a sort of command center to run the various systems in your house. And don't tell me no one is going to be so lazy as to want to control the HVAC (heating, ventilating, air conditioning) settings from their tablet rather than just getting up from their favorite chair and going over to the thermostat.
When was the last time you actually got up to change the channel on your television? I thought so.
The tablet, which Microsoft is promoting but which will be manufactured by the usual OEMs, will include wireless voice-command capability as well as handwriting recognition. Algorithms will learn to recognize a user's idiosyncratic handwriting. The notes taken can be saved either as a graphic or converted to digital text and put in a file. Those notes, which might be a phone number you jotted down or an appointment, will be sent silently, without the need for user intervention, to your calendar no matter how many different devices that calendar may be stored on.
My guess is a traveler's anxiety level will come down a notch or two -- as he or she travels from office to street to car to home to taxi to airport to plane -- if there is uninterrupted access to files, contacts, calendars, and the network.
Leave one device at home, take the wrong device, lose one -- no matter. You're backed up in at least six ways.
Bluetooth aside, the real lesson to be learned here is about technology. I fell into the trap of looking at the present problems and pronouncing judgment; or as my mother liked to say, you can't see beyond tthe nose on your face. She wasn't talking about me, of course. What I didn't consider was the capability of technology to improve over time. This is certainly true in the case of Bluetooth.
Now, this does not mean I think Bluetooth should be packaged up and foisted on unsuspecting users in a surreptitious marketing effort that turns us into nothing more than beta testers. No, the notebook, cell phone, and handheld manufacturers, to name a few, should scale back whatever Bluetooth capabilities they were about to deploy and offer only those capabilities that they can implement well. They should wait to increase the Bluetooth feature set when it is 100 percent ready.
But things are indeed improving. As we speak, 802.11 is evolving into 802.15, which will not conflict with wireless LANs. By next year, there will be a one-chip solution -- as we say in the industry -- that will bring the price of Bluetooth under the magic $5 mark. Manufacturers are creating a manual on/off switch so that it will satisfy the FAA. This still bears looking into.
My guess is that eventually Bluetooth and wireless LANs will morph into a single wireless system on a chip that will bring down the price of both further still. Walk in to a meeting or your home and Bluetooth pings the LAN base station, does the handshake, and puts you on the network.
Pervasive computing means your information will be in digital format on a multitude of devices; the only way that I can see to make that work is to transfer the data from one device to the next without the user having to worry about it.
If you disagree with me, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd like to hear why.