Teething Pains For Bluetooth

To fulfill its potential, "personal area networking" has to mature and cut its price

Some time in the not very distant future, you may be able to slip on a cordless headset and make a call on the cell phone in your briefcase just by speaking into the microphone. Your laptop or handheld computer will wirelessly use the same phone to connect to the Internet. And you can route a fax from your phone to a printer just by clicking a few buttons.

These communications wonders are all made possible by a new technology called Bluetooth, which is supposed to be cheap and simple enough to let just about anything connect wirelessly to anything else. The first Bluetooth products are just hitting the market, and you'll be hearing a lot about them in coming months. Experience has made me skeptical of high-tech wonders. But I have been following Bluetooth closely, and I'm convinced it's the real thing--or will be, eventually. Still, to fulfill its potential, Bluetooth has to mature a lot and become vastly cheaper.

Bluetooth was originally developed by L.M. Ericsson (ERICY) as a simple alternative to cables. The Swedish company turned it over to the 2,100-company-strong Bluetooth Special Interest Group (www.bluetooth.com), and the standard has evolved into something called "personal area networking." When a Bluetooth device is active, it is constantly on the lookout for anything within about 30 feet with which it can communicate. When two devices find each other, they exchange information about their capabilities, so that your Palm or Visor would know to send documents to a printer and music to a headset.

This scenario suggests one of the big challenges for Bluetooth: The means for a Bluetooth device to decide what it wants to communicate with will have to be made very simple. You won't want to be interrupted every time someone walks into a room carrying a Bluetooth-equipped phone or pager. And designers face a problem in making the choices easy for people using phones and other products that have limited user interfaces such as dial pads.

Security is another big issue. It's nice if a visitor to your office can dump a few pages to your printer without any fuss, but you don't want some stranger to be able to use his or her laptop or wireless headset to make a call on your phone. The software must provide for adequate security and make the choices very simple.

BEDFELLOWS. Finally, as with any radio technology, interference is an issue. This is especially true for Bluetooth, which shares spectrum with high-end cordless phones, wireless local area networks--and microwave ovens. Making sure that Bluetooth and wireless LAN systems work well together is especially important, because both are likely to be found in laptops.

There is a lot of engineering work being done right now to address these issues. But the biggest challenge facing Bluetooth in the short term is cost. The ultimate vision is a technology cheap enough so that everything that now connects with a cable becomes wireless. Today, however, Bluetooth radios cost manufacturers about $20 apiece and the total cost of adding the feature is around $100. Among the few Bluetooth products on the market are $200 PC cards, aimed at testing and development, from Motorola (MOT), Toshiba, and others.

Manufacturers, however, see a potential market of billions of units. More than 400 million wireless phones were sold last year alone. Chipmakers, from established players such as Motorola, Lucent Technologies (LU), and Broadcom (BRCM) to upstarts such as Silicon Wave and Cambridge Silicon Radio are working frantically to drive prices down by an order of magnitude. The key is single-chip radios that can be made like conventional semiconductors. The best bet is that by the second half of this year, prices will be low enough and software good enough for Bluetooth to be built into some laptop computers and high-end phone handsets. But a true mass market probably won't develop before 2002.

There's still a danger that Bluetooth will end up as a cool technology without a market, especially if prices fail to drop rapidly. But given the breadth and depth of industry support for the standard, this seems unlikely. Bluetooth seems destined to be a vital tool in a world of proliferating communications devices. But as the hype machine gears up in coming months, we're going to have to be patient and wait until Bluetooth is truly ready for prime time.

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