March 2, 2001

It's not easy being Bluetooth

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

The future of wireless technology promises to change the way we live, work, and play. But delay after delay has many wondering when, if ever, companies will deliver.Chances are good that there's a wire jungle stuffed behind your desk, trailing your baseboards, or lurking underneath a strategically placed rug. One minor addition or subtraction to the family PC can make any room look like a construction zone. None of us would mind very much if all of those cables disappeared.

Bluetooth offers a computing future free of bulky cables or major home interior renovation. Installing a new printer becomes almost as technically challenging as plugging in a desk lamp, and you won't even have to take your handheld organizer out of the case for a sync.

More than just printing without cables, this short-range wireless technology will make a computer -- or some other digital device -- the hub of your home. Eventually, the technology will make its way into almost every gadget, appliance, or home electronic you can think of. From refrigerators and microwave ovens to alarm clocks and electric razors, Bluetooth will be everywhere -- someday.

What's just as cool about Bluetooth is that it's not based on a proprietary protocol for Windows -- Linux can run Bluetooth applications.

Product delays are commonplace in the technology industry, but they're certainly not something any company wants. While it's a point of contention that marketing often overestimates the resources available to engineering when talking to the press, there are few things more embarrassing to everyone involved than having a tardy project labeled as vaporware.

One of those items that could fall into the category of "more embarrassing" would be to release a product that doesn't live up to its publicity. The companies behind Bluetooth first suffered from technical delays. Such delays are understandable, and even tolerable when dealing with a protocol that has promised since day one to be nothing short of revolutionary.

Now deemed ready for prime time, industrial manufacturers began shipments of Bluetooth components late last year. There are a handful of Bluetooth products available now, most notably a PC card from IBM that will transform any computer into a Bluetooth-compatible device. The only problem is that the first generation of consumer Bluetooth devices isn't expected until early 2002.

Companies have taken the delays in stride, spinning them as "further development opportunities" to refine and enhance its wireless offerings. "Some of the (Bluetooth delays) gave us the extra time we needed to further shrink and streamline our modem and Bluetooth combo card," said a Motorola spokesman.

If there's any true vapor to Bluetooth, it's the pricing of the bits and pieces of hardware involved in the wireless protocol. Bluetooth inventor Ericsson and the other companies first involved with the protocol promised wireless promised that chip prices would be no more than $5 per unit.

Instead, the real price of the components has been between $20 and $27 per unit. That's a hefty price tag that has given more than a few would-be developers of Bluetooth products second thoughts. Pricing is supposed to go down when a greater volume of chips are being produced, but with so many companies adopting a wait-and-see attitude, analysts don't expect that to happen any time soon.

The short-range wireless revolution will happen slowly. When the first consumer Bluetooth devices go to market, they'll be stocked alongside more conventional -- and less expensive -- products that perform the same functions, not to mention competing wireless protocols. To make matters worse, a flagging global economy could make consumers hesitant to spend money on new hardware.

"How is this going to be different, in the consumer's eye, from HomeRF or infrared?" asks Kim Monk, an independent technical engineering consultant. "I think that people like the idea of wireless, but if they might have heard something bad about other products, then they'll tar anything that says it's new with the same brush."

If Bluetooth can overcome delays, bring down prices, and dazzle skittish consumers, it could be the wireless revolution everyone is hoping for.

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