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Bluetoothful Loser

The announcement of a faster Bluetooth caps off a winning streak for the wireless transfer technology, but nagging compatibility issues mean that WiFi and ultrawideband still have the inside track.

Whats this? Bluetooth a success? As Rummy would say, Heavens to Betsy, yes. According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, two million devices equipped with the short-range wireless technology were shipping every week during the month of May, double the rate nine months before. Allied Business Intelligence predicts that 300 million Bluetooth products will ship this year, up from 80 million in 2003. Bluetooth still hasnt made much of a dent in the U.S. cell-phone market and it never caught on as a cable replacement for PCs, but its now fairly standard on PDAs and outside of the Americas its a mainstay on smart phones. Bluetooth owns the red-hot market in wireless headsets. Its even gaining sex appeal: the latest fad in Europe is Toothing for mates by broadcasting personal information and photos.

Soon, Bluetooth will boast improvements in its own vital stats: Bluetooth SIG recently announced a faster version called Bluetooth EDR (for Enhanced Data Rate), which should arrive sometime in 2005. EDR will blast data at up to 2.1 megabits per second, triple the current rate. Thats enough bandwidth to quickly transfer photos from your digital camera phone to your laptop and to zap files to laser printers. Because batteries drain quickly during transfers, EDRs shorter transfer sessions reduce power consumption.

With success like this, could it be that the time-honored tradition of Bluetooth-bashing has run its course? There has always been a xenophobic undercurrent to the gripes, as with any technology not born in Armonk, Sunnyvale, or Redmond; Bluetooths Swedish origins and its popularity throughout uppity Old Europe make it suspect to Yankee eyes. Still, a growing number of respected analysts are giving Bluetooth a thumbs up. IDC’s Alex Slawsby, for example, predicts that were going to see a lot of Bluetooth products coming to market toward the end of the year.

That may be true, but a year from now were also likely to see the arrival of ultrawideband technology that addresses the same applications at much faster data rates. In fact, Bluetooths recent success may be partially due to the delays in bringing ultrawideband to market. Ultrawideband uses low-power, short-pulse radio signals to deliver up to 480 megabits per second at a range of 2 meters, and 110 megabits per second at 10 metersthe current maximum range for both ultrawideband and Bluetooth. Designed as a PC cable replacement and as a way to distribute video throughout households, ultrawideband could also be cheaply implemented into mobile devices. Yet, its commercial deployment has been held back by the lack of agreement on a technical standard; Slawsby says it will be at least a year before ultrawideband products arrive.

Despite the turf wars, ultrawideband’s advantages are such that former Bluetooth booster Intel withdrew its support for Bluetooth earlier this year, and is instead pushing an IEEE version of ultrawideband. Intel and others are also pushing WiFi, which is riding a wave of popularity that makes Bluetooths winning streak look modest by comparison. Unlike ultrawideband, WiFi is not a direct competitor with Bluetooth (its more of a wireless networking technology than a device-to-device transfer technology), but it can be used for many Bluetooth-like applications. Today’s version of WiFi, known as 802.11b, is up to five times faster than Bluetooth EDR; newer WiFi technology is as much as 25 times faster. Whats more, the competition among technologies for placement in consumer electronics is fierce. WiFi is far more common on laptops than is Bluetooth, and next year when Bluetooth EDR arrives well see smart phones with built-in WiFi, too.

By the time EDR comes out, it wont have much of a runway to take off on before it runs into competition from WiFi and ultrawideband, says Tod Kort, an analyst at Gartner. Theres a window here in which Bluetooth really needs to get its act together because otherwise UWB will replace it. EDRs bandwidth is still not competitive, so I dont think its going to tip the balance.

IDC’s Slawsby argues that bandwidth is beside the point. He expects that the existing Bluetooth will outsell the souped-up EDR for several years, especially in the hot market for wireless headsets. We dont believe EDR will cause a radical change in Bluetooths acceptance, he says. Chipsets are coming out that combine WiFi and Bluetooth, he says, and the latter will succeed because ultrawideband is still very immature.

The greater problem for Bluetooth, says Kort, is its complexity. Much of Bluetooths reputation for being difficult to use, he says, is really due to poor compatibility. There are too many [Bluetooth] devices that still dont work with each other, he explains. While data transfers between products made by the same company work fine, cross-vendor transmissions often require the tweaking of settingsor simply refuse to work at all, he says. Cellular providers have delayed implementing Bluetooth because they dont want to deal with the support hassles.

Even when Bluetooth works, the ability to swap files between devices lacks the marketing sizzle of MP3 or digital photography; that’s why cell-phone carriers and vendors keep postponing it until next year. More bad news: although Bluetooth is well established in the U.S. PDA market, PDA sales have been sliding. Meanwhile, European cell phone users may be tempted to e-mail their files via faster new 3G data services rather than wait for a direct Bluetooth transfer to a laptop.

So is Bluetooth a success? You betcha. Will it be a year from now? Cant say. How about two years? Goodness gracious, no. After all, consumer electronics can be a very messy business indeed.

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