Bluetooth: For Now, It's a Pain

If not for the high cost and the absence of standardized software, this technology would be hot

Those of us who have been working with computers for 20 years or more remember a time when getting PCs to communicate was a black art. I took an unwelcome trip back to those bad old days recently when I tested a flock of new devices that use Bluetooth, a wireless technology.

This is a shame, because the technology has tremendous potential. Bluetooth is short-range wireless designed to let devices connect without fuss or cables. You can link a wireless phone to a headset, a laptop to a printer, or let a PC or handheld computer use a wireless phone as a modem. To sample the range of Bluetooth products now shipping, I tried a Toshiba Bluetooth card for Palms, a Hewlett-Packard printer, and a Sony Ericsson phone. I also tried PC and Mac adapters from D-Link Systems, 3Com, and TDK. My final tests were a Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC and IBM (IBM ) and Toshiba (TOSBF ) laptops with built-in Bluetooth. A maddening lack of standardization in the software turned each setup into a frustrating adventure.

On the most basic level, the hardware works fine. If you put a Bluetooth device into "discoverable" mode, any other device within about 30 feet can find it and display its name. The next step is to set up a "pairing" or "bonding"--different software uses different terms--between two devices. This requires picking the partner from a list on each device and entering the same password on each. The way this is done is a little different for each pair of devices, and it doesn't always work on the first try. But at least the pairing, once established, is permanent.

Once the devices are paired, there's still the problem of establishing meaningful communications. The most important use of Bluetooth, which is gaining considerable popularity in Europe, is getting laptop or handheld computers to link to a wireless phone to sync contacts and calendar or to use it for Internet access. It took a lot of tech support help from both VoiceStream Wireless (VSTR ) and Ericsson (ERICY ), but I did eventually get the excellent, tiny Sony Ericsson T68 Bluetooth phone ($200 with activation) working with Windows XP, Mac OS X, and Pocket PC 2002 computers. I could have accomplished the same thing with less effort using the infrared links on the computers and the phone. But Bluetooth, once it gets easier to set up, has a big advantage: You don't need a clear line of sight between ports that infrared requires, so the phone can stay in your pocket, purse, or briefcase.

Apple Computer (AAPL ), which jump-started wireless networking in 1999 by introducing its low-cost AirPort system, is hoping to do the same for Bluetooth. It has added Bluetooth support, which it wisely calls a "technology preview," to OS X and has worked with D-Link Systems to market a tiny USB Bluetooth adapter for $50, less than half the cost of competing products. With a fair amount of experimentation and a couple of tech support calls, I was able to get a Mac to sync with a Palm m515 over Bluetooth. But I never did get Bluetooth sync to work with an IBM ThinkPad T30.

The use of Bluetooth that I found simplest to set up was connecting a variety of devices to a local area network and the Internet using a Pico Communications PicoBlue access point ($490). Unfortunately, this task is done better and cheaper with Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet; the biggest advantage of Bluetooth is that its less power-hungry radio drains batteries a lot slower than Wi-Fi.

For Bluetooth to come anywhere close to realizing its potential, two things need to happen. Prices have to decline sharply, which will take place as production volumes rise. And the software has to become simpler and standardized. For many uses, the key will be integration of Bluetooth with Windows. But Microsoft (MSFT ) won't include Bluetooth support in a Windows XP update due this fall and probably won't have the software ready until early next year. If Microsoft eventually makes using Bluetooth with XP as simple as they have made Wi-Fi networking, the technology could take off. Until then, however, Bluetooth is probably best left to the gadget-happy tinkerers who are willing to put in the effort to get it working.


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