Is Bluetooth lacking bite?


26 Feb 2004

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The five-year-old Bluetooth technology is well beyond the teething stage and making great progress in some areas, notably mobile phone-based business technology. But in other respects it is just toddling and even beginning to seem like a case of arrested development. There has been a lot of hype, especially in the consumer market where Bluetooth was touted as the automatic wireless technology to link phones, fridges, cars and home entertainment centres.

In practice it has been the mobile phone makers that have led the way — notably Nokia, Motorola and Sony-Ericsson — with the active collaboration of IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Apple.

Perhaps the best illustration of the real state of play is the official Bluetooth.com website of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the international trade association promoting the technology. The site lists specific products using Bluetooth, from mobile phones and their in-vehicle kits to Sony’s Aibo robot dog. But there is a total of just 477 products currently listed, most of them variations on the same item from different manufacturers.

By the end of 2003, according to Bluetooth.com, the market was taking about one million Bluetooth products a week. This sounds like a lot until you consider the range of mass-market electronics that could be using the technology. In fact, most of those shipments are mobile phones and a disproportionate 65pc are in Europe.

Why so slow if the technology is so good? Part of the answer is that the technology has not been all that good, in the sense that the standards/protocols are basically fine but there have been interoperability issues between implementations by different manufacturers from the beginning. Insufficient testing and too quick to market, the critics have said. A lot of that has been sorted out, but right now there is no single Bluetooth-enabled device, not even a PC, that will work with every other Bluetooth device.

Loading additional drivers can solve the problem in specific situations, but that begins to negate the whole point of cable substitution by wireless — it’s as if you don’t need a cable but you do need a small sack-full of plugs. But other significant negative factors include costs (the chips are still a long way from achieving the volumes to bring unit costs down to cents) and battery consumption. This is enormously important, because making Bluetooth universal absolutely depends on cheapness of production.

It is essentially an appliance technology and so has to reach a cost level where it can be built into almost any product. Everyone knows that the secret of all portable electronic gear is that sophisticated rechargeable battery technology on the way up (always expensive initially) has met power requirements coming down. Anything that disturbs that engineering progress will not readily be acceptable to manufacturers or consumers.

On the technical side, bandwidth constraints (around 0.5Mbps) mean that more data-intensive applications are slow, such as exchanging images or even just files. On the other hand, there are many happy Bluetooth users synchronising data between matching sets of smart phones, laptops and other handheld devices very successfully and very happily.

What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology for very short range (two to three metres) data and voice links between electronic devices, mostly personal and portable units such as laptops and PDAs, phones and pagers. It can also link those to desktop PCs, printers and so on. More recently, wireless headsets for mobile phones and personal entertainment have become popular Bluetooth appliances. It is in essence a mini-network of two or more devices (the IT industry is now talking about Personal Area Networks) and is both a convenient substitute for cables and an intelligent basis for shared applications between those devices. Bluetooth is also seen as a replacement for infrared with the advantages of being omnidirectional and allowing both data and voice traffic, so more flexible and smarter. But infrared has the great advantages of being a mature and cheap technology as well as offering greater data speed, so it’s not dead by any means.

Bluetooth has the built-in facility to recognise other Bluetooth devices in its range and ‘handshake’ with them automatically — ‘spontaneous networking’. The possibilities being touted for instant communications include mutual identification (for door or systems entry, for example) and even automatic exchange of electronic business cards with someone else’s Bluetooth device. This attribute can be switched off, so that the device is cloaked and contact is permitted only with authorised devices, eg the owner’s personal set.

Other development areas include allowing a PDA or smart phone to function as an e-wallet, containing all your credit cards in electronic form as well as cyber cash. There are vast areas where automated payments — using Bluetooth for instant communication — will add speed and security such as toll booths, car parks, public transport and vending machines.

There are now two Bluetooth levels: Class 2 is the current standard, with a range of up to 10 metres in some devices (battery power is a factor) and data throughput of 0.5-0.7Mbps. Class 1 extends the practical range to about 100 metres (unobstructed) and brings the data transfer rate up to 1Mbps. It is being implemented only in high-end devices because of the higher battery power required and the limited range of current applications.

The king of technology

The Bluetooth name was chosen for the technology in 1998 after 10th century Viking king Harald Bluetooth, who apparently united a number of Nordic nations under one religion. Given the difficulties of communication between manufacturers and their devices in the years since then, singing from the same technical hymn sheets but with rather less than full harmony, the politico-religious symbolism of the name choice was positively prophetic. But today’s true-Bluetooth adherents claim that all is now fully reconciled.

The Bluetooth bunch

The value of Bluetooth is being recognised by manufacturers of devices for business, personal and entertainment use and incorporated into an array of gadgets from laptops to projectors, phones to GPS receivers. The list of devices below can incorporate Bluetooth technology:

Adapters — for wireless connection of any device
Barcode readers
Cordless keyboards, mouses and other input devices
Car kits for mobile — up to four handsets simultaneously
Controllers — audiovisual and home entertainment centres
Cordless phones and headsets
GPS receivers
Laptop and palmtop computers
Local data servers (equivalent of information kiosk)
Medical devices (sensor to monitor links)
Mobile gaming
Mobile phones — GSM, GPRS and 3G
Modems — miniature portable units
Music — links to speakers, headphones and MP3 devices
Portable ticket machines and printers
PDAs
Phone headsets
Printers
Portable scanners
Robots — Sony Aibo
Toys (race car controlled from Sony-Ericsson phone)
Vehicle systems — linking all onboard devices (PC, printer, GPS, hands-free phones, gauges/monitors)
Washer-dryer (Toshiba — talks to home management PC)
Whiteboard — interactive to capture meeting notes and drawings
Wireless mouse and keyboard sets

Players in the Bluetooth game

Hewlett-Packard
Hewlett-Packard (HP) sees Bluetooth becoming increasingly significant in its business products and in fact take-up by business users driving the market in the immediate future, according to Reza Razvani, program manager at the HP Global Mobility Solutions Centre in Stockholm. “HP was the first manufacturer to make Bluetooth standard in a handheld device — the Compaq iPaq — and now it is available even in the consumer products,” he says.

Bluetooth is primarily a cable eliminator in connecting devices in a temporary Personal Area Network, which sounds simple but it opens up a wide range of applications. While the commonest by far is simply connecting a laptop to a mobile phone (GSM, GPRS or now 3G), Razvani points to a recent example of a project to kit out a field security team that would certify the results of its inspections.

The members were each equipped with an iPaq Pocket PC, a GPS receiver, portable printer and a mobile phone. Each unit linked via Bluetooth, so a receipt or certificate could be initiated and recorded on the iPaq with location coordinates, time and date independently verified through the GPS then printed on the spot.

“A more mundane example is queue-busting in a cinema or supermarket — handheld scanner or credit card reader and a belt printer means a staffer can verify payment and issue a ticket or receipt on the spot, with each unit connecting to the others or to a fixed PC over Bluetooth. Similar solutions can enable air passengers with just hand luggage to be speedily checked in for their flights,” he adds.

Accepting that there are lingering interoperability problems, Razvani points out that in the business world Bluetooth tends to be used by individuals for their set of devices rather than for the spontaneous ad hoc connection of different units promised by a lot of the hype. “So the technical partnership between HP and Nokia, for example, means that a Nokia phone can direct its output to any HP Bluetooth printer and control it, as in numbers of copies of a document or size of photo prints,” he explains.

While take-up of Bluetooth is gaining momentum all the time, he believes that some of the engineering challenges on the verge of being surmounted will greatly extend both the possibilities and the appeal of Bluetooth across all product applications. He suggests that Bluetooth Class 1, now available only on some high-end devices, will find many applications because it extends the practical signal range to about 100 metres (omnidirectional but line of sight).

“This will ensure the practicability of small handheld devices in such places as warehouses, truck and container parks and so on, while repeaters can extend the range of Bluetooth wireless units even further to cover quite large areas,” he continues. This will tie in with another area of development — namely battery technology — which Razvani believes will be significant, with units even having dual batteries so that the Bluetooth connectivity can be always-on while the device proper reverts to sleep or standby mode.

“In many ways Bluetooth is highly dependent on Microsoft Windows, so we look forward to the next versions of Windows XP and Pocket PC that promise enhanced support for the technology. We certainly anticipate launching new HP products that will take advantage of that and bring new levels of functionality to our Bluetooth-enabled devices,” he concludes.

Nokia: Driving mobility
The majority of mobile handsets in the Nokia range are now Bluetooth-enabled, according to Gavin Barrett, multimedia business manager for Nokia in Ireland. “At this stage Bluetooth is still not really a requirement at the budget end but it is certainly now essential when targeting business users. On the other hand, we reckon 2004 probably will see Bluetooth technology really hitting the mass market in all sorts of devices. The problems with interoperability of devices have to be acknowledged, but they are largely now in the past and I think Bluetooth can catch up with its own hype,” he states.

Initially Bluetooth in mobile phones was mostly used by business people to connect with laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs). More recently, according to Barrett, cordless headsets have taken over as the most popular pairing. “Car kits are also becoming more significant in the market, with additional touches of sophistication such as dash-mounted displays and our easy one-finger navigator wheel to make and take calls as well as other tasks,” he explains. Because the car kit is wireless, users can change handsets whenever they like — in fact, one third-party manufacturer has launched a multi-channel vehicle kit that can handle up to four mobile phones simultaneously connecting to any service operators.

In the consumer market, Nokia is enjoying major success in online and wireless gaming with its n-Gage series of products. Handset owners can compete against each other via GPRS, 3G or Bluetooth with up to eight players simultaneously if they are together in a group. “Our popular new camera phones use Bluetooth to communicate with HP photo printers for hard copies,” says Barrett. “That is largely recreational, of course, but business users are increasingly using camera phones for various kinds of inspection and hard copies can be useful.”

Fujitsu-Siemens: Empowering road warriors
The blunt fact is that Bluetooth is not yet a standard requirement for business users, says Liam Halpin, channel sales manager of Fujitsu-Siemens in Ireland. “The typical road warrior today is equipped with Centrino and Wi-Fi — minimal energy consumption and easy connection to the internet via public wireless broadband hotspots or to the home base LAN [local area network] through the same Wi-Fi facility — and all straight out of the box,” he explains. When working at home, users lucky enough to have an ADSL internet connection will also use Wi-Fi through a wireless access point.

The next ‘must have’ is a GSM or, more often these days, a GPRS card, according to Halpin, to extend the communications beyond Wi-Fi so that email, at least, is readily accessible on the move. The other rising star in such mobile communications is the facility for a virtual private network link back to the office. Where Bluetooth fits in after that is in device-to-device communications in a Personal Area Network. “Linking a laptop to a handheld PDA or a mobile phone is quite common and people who have it do find Bluetooth convenient instead of cables or a printer. For printing also — using a portable printer or just printing when in the office — it has the same merits of convenience. There may be other devices that specific applications need to link to — GPS is often cited. All of that being said, Bluetooth just is not a ‘must have’ which is why it is not yet standard on all of our PCs,” Halpin imparts.

By Leslie Faughnan