Wireless: meet King Harald

In an effort to boost communications between any number of disparate devices, 2000+ vendors gathered together in 1998 to work on a new technology standard called Bluetooth. 2001 should be the year in which devices enabled by Bluetooth finally ship.

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By  Michelle Sturman Published  December 19, 2000

In an effort to boost communications between any number of disparate devices, 2000+ vendors gathered together in 1998 to work on a new technology standard called Bluetooth. 2001 should be the year in which devices enabled by Bluetooth finally ship.

Act One, Scene One: North Jutland, Denmark, circa. 960. King Harald I, nee Harald Blatland, looks over the cold, blustery, early morning landscape and decides that he is sick to death of the different standards, and different customs within his fragmented state, and the difficulty they constantly raise.

His response is to conquer the rest of Denmark, unify it, and invade Norway to boot, giving these disparate lands a single set of rules. It is one hell of a way to cure a headache.

Fast forward to Act One, Scene Two: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, circa 1998. You are having one of those mornings too. You got to the office at 9:05, for a meeting that started at 9:00. You still have notes to print for a meeting set to start at 10:00, and three important email proposals to send.

The scowl on your boss’s face says there’s no time to log your notebook onto the network so you can’t start your print jobs going. Forget about sending the proposals. If only you had an army like Harald I’s.

Act Two, Scene One: The same office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, circa 2001. The army arrived in the form of a ‘Bluetooth’ special interest group (SIG), and the legacy of Harald Blatland lives on. You walk into the office and your notebook automatically—and from within its carry-bag—scouts around, finds a suitable printer, and introduces itself.

The two devices exchange details, and the queued print jobs start to print. Simultaneously, your notebook, eager to send its queued email jobs, looks for the email server. A similar conversation takes place, and the emails are on their way to their recipients. You haven’t even reached your desk yet.

Welcome to Harald's world: For the uninitiated, Bluetooth is an English translation of King Harald I’s surname—Blatland—and the SIG under that banner is made up of over 2,000 technology companies including Motorola, Ericsson, Intel, IBM, Nokia, Microsoft, Lucent, 3Com and Toshiba.

From its beginnings, Bluetooth was envisioned as a technology that would standardise communications between disparate devices, replacing cables and allowing multiple devices to ‘talk’ to each other.

Essentially, any Bluetooth-enabled device, be it a notebook, a desktop PC, a printer, scanner, mobile phone, handheld computer, or even a home appliance or an electronic device built into your car, can communicate and pass along information to any other Bluetooth-enabled device.

In technical terms, Bluetooth uses a radio frequency, on the 2.4 GHz ISM band, offering license-free operation in most parts of the world. That frequency is unlimited in that PTTs have not restricted its use.

Ironically, the biggest limitation that Bluetooth faces is in its own technical specifications: the radius within which Bluetooth devices can communicate is only ten metres for now.

All the same, it does offer advantages over other wireless technology such as Infrared (IrDA). “Infrared is great now because I can get devices to talk to each other, but, I need to point the ports at each other to do this. It is not really flexible for me,” says Aben Kovoor, Internet solutions specialist, Microsoft GEM.

A slow process: Bluetooth has been slow to develop however. Today, there are only a handful of devices that have Bluetooth technology incorporated into them, mostly notebooks, PC cards and mobile phones.

The idea for Bluetooth originated with Ericsson, a company that decided wireless should be the way of the future—with no more restrictive cables—and should be low-cost without the limitations presented by IrDA. One vendor working alone of course rendered the entire idea an exercise in futility; Ericsson knew that other vendors would have to embrace it too, and so was born the Bluetooth SIG.

Simply put, the SIG has been working to develop a standardised electronic device, integrated into just about anything you can imagine, regardless of the manufacturer, which will enable them to communicate automatically, without you having to configure any devices.

But it isn’t all plain sailing. The mountain that King Harald I has to climb this time around is overcoming the runaway success of the IEEE 802.11B standard for Wireless LANs (WLAN), which is making strong headway in corporate environments.

Stiff competition: The 802.11B standard is more compelling than Bluetooth for at least two reasons. As an older, more mature wireless technology, it has moved beyond the start-up problems dogging Bluetooth. And while Bluetooth is good for wireless connections to devices within a few feet, 802.11B lets portable devices connect to corporate networks or the Internet over distances as great as 300 feet.

That being the case, employees could move their notebooks from, say, their cubicle, to the conference room, while remaining connected to the company network.

Even so, the two technologies at their core, complement one another rather than competing with one another. Bluetooth, according to Intel’s Bluetooth administration manager for the region, Maan Ahmadie, is strictly mobile-centric, whereas WLAN technology is designed specifically for use within fixed areas.

For example, whereas WLAN technology enables the office space to be free of cables, Bluetooth takes that lack of physical connectivity out into the world and embraces a thousand different environments.

With Bluetooth, for example, you could concievably download a bank statement to your Bluetooth-enabled PDA from a Bluetooth-enabled bank ATM, simply by driving past it.

“It opens a world of freedom to users of mobile technology. The trend of the world is changing—we are all looking to move around more, and Bluetooth delivers the benefit that you can do this and yet get more functionality than before,” says Ahmadie.

Furthermore, according to Ahmadie, Bluetooth—unlike WLAN—is equipped to handle both voice and data traffic, whereas WLAN is strictly data only.

Widespread support: Couple that with the fact that there are 2000+ signatories to Bluetooth, and analysts believe that its future is assured—with predictions that 100 million Bluetooth devices would be shipped by the end of 2001.

Dataquest, for example, makes the bold statement that one billion devices incorporating the Bluetooth technology will be in the market by end of 2004. That’s a huge market for laptops, mobile phones and PDAs worldwide.

“Bluetooth’s scope of adoption is not limited to the mobile phone industry, and we will begin to see Bluetooth chips embedded in everything from PC equipment to industrial devices,” says Navin Sabharwal, director of networking technologies at analyst firm Allied Business Intelligence (ABI).

ABI is joined by the industry analysis firm of Frost & Sullivan in predicting that once a compromise is found between 802.11B and Bluetooth, revenues will soar from US$92.3 million in 1999, to $53.12 billion in 2006.

“We are unlikely to see a significant volume of Bluetooth devices until mid-2001, and the market will only begin to accelerate in 2002,” says Sabharwal.

A local matter: Opinions differ on that matter locally. Intel’s Ahmadie thinks adoption of Bluetooth devices will happen “before the end of 2001.”
James Walker, product marketing manager for wireless products at 3Com on the other hand, doesn’t see things panning out quite so rapidly in the local market.

According to Walker, the main challenge in the wireless space is getting “normal wireless approved.”

“So we’re not really pushing Bluetooth. [But] I think to get Bluetooth approved will be a lot easier because [so many major IT vendors] have bought into it. It’s a standard that everyone has followed, and compatibility shouldn’t be too much of a problem. As soon as anything is shipped with Bluetooth capabilities, then we will start releasing our products as well. There is no point in us releasing our products if there is nothing there to match it, [such as] mobile phones, PCs, and so on,” said Walker.

“Bluetooth is very much a value-add for a reseller to use when selling products. Once a company adopts Bluetooth, it is going to have to have Bluetooth everywhere, and update everything. It’s quite a simple thing to do as well. When the take-up starts, I think everyone will jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

The key to Bluetooth’s success is likely to be down in large part to the wide support it has however. Intel’s Ahmadie says that though Intel, and many other Bluetooth members, are also working towards the development of the IrDA standard, they are all focused on the same taks where development of Bluetooth is concerned.

That kind of support is rare for a single technology, and if the Bluetooth SIG carries a development through to the adoption of a standard, Bluetooth’s future looks bright.

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