If they build it, will you buy it? In the year to come, many computer manufacturers are pinning their hopes on a new wireless technology named Bluetooth. The amount of hype generated for this product is extraordinary, especially when you consider that this time around, it's not a closed source-only party.There's certainly no shortage of information on Bluetooth; at the recently concluded Fall Comdex show in Las Vegas, hardware and software manufacturers averaged at least one press release per day announcing their support for the wireless technology. Heavy on buzzwords but short on crucial information, most of these items failed to answer one very popular question: Exactly what is Bluetooth supposed to do?
According to Digianswer's Bluetooth site, the protocol "provides a universal bridge to existing data networks, a peripheral interface, and a mechanism to form small private ad hoc groupings of connected devices away from fixed network infrastructures."
Bluetooth is a local wireless radio protocol -- a very fast, very limited (in terms of geographic range) protocol. It can transfer data at a zippy 752Kbits/second to other devices within a 30-foot radius, more than enough space for the average home or office setup.
Perhaps the most breathtaking aspect of Bluetooth is the fact that it isn't some closed, proprietary protocol for Windows. Linux can and will run Bluetooth applications, and one of the most highly anticipated software releases of the year has been IBM's suite of development tools for Linux and Bluetooth, dubbed BlueDrekar.
Now take a look behind your computer at the jungle of wire back there, and imagine it reduced by 90%. Imagine adding new peripherals to your computer without having to worry about open ports or switching boxes: Just place the thing on the nearest surface and turn it on.
This is more revolutionary than it sounds. Computers spit out an extraordinary amount of radio frequency interference, making all but a very small group of current hardware products available as wireless solutions. Bluetooth utilizes a system of fast "talking" and frequency hopping to make its instructions known while avoiding traditional broadcast interference.
For smaller networks, Bluetooth could spell the end for miniature scale Ethernet -- simply use the airspace in your home to connect to a single Internet gateway. Anyone who has ever battled with laptop hookups will undoubtedly appreciate this aspect of Bluetooth.
Many industry prognosticators have said that eventually computers and communication will become transparent aspects of our daily lives. Bluetooth may be the protocol that hurtles the world in that direction.
Imagine hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock, which in turn informs the coffee maker to delay brewing for another 15 minutes. When you're ready to face the world for that first cup of coffee, you reach into the refrigerator and pour the last precious drops of milk into your cup. The refrigerator automatically adds a gallon of milk to the weekly grocery order, to be delivered later in the day.
Before life can get to that point of convenience, people actually have to be able to use Bluetooth. There have been quite a few false starts and broken promises made over the last 18 months, as security problems and other issues were worked out among Bluetooth participants.
Some devices have already been released, most of them along the lines of demonstration tools and components that aren't quite ready for home use -- yet. The lone exception is a headset developed by wireless giant Ericsson for use with its mobile phones. Most consumer-ready devices are slated to be released in the first and second quarters of 2001.
With thousands of manufacturers signed on to make the most out of Bluetooth, chances are that it will, eventually, make its way into the home user market. With most delivery dates only now being tentatively penciled in, figuring out when it will arrive will be the most perplexing part for consumers.
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