Bluetooth brushes up

Products are arriving to support Bluetooth wireless links between devices, and they could quickly change the shape of corporate networks, argues Bill Pechey

Everyone has heard of the Bluetooth standard for local wireless connections, but it has taken longer than anticipated to stabilise the specifications and get products to the marketplace. However, now products are finally arriving, interest in Bluetooth could grow rapidly.

Bluetooth was originally conceived as a way of connecting mobile phones to headsets and PDAs, but has developed into a universal short-range radio system, capable of working as anything from a simple cable replacement system to a slow-speed wireless LAN. Bluetooth specifications are very strong on compatibility, to allow products from many vendors to work together. Everything is specified ­ from the radio system to calendar synchronisation protocols.

Last year there were several announcements of Bluetooth products from mobile phone companies, but none are yet for sale. What you can buy are several other types of Bluetooth components, including PC Card adapters and LAN access points, with many more due to be announced at the Cebit IT show in Hanover this month. Products include PC Cards, available from Xircom, Brainboxes, Motorola, Fujitsu and Digianswer (Digianswer is owned by Motorola but its products are not the same); and LAN access points, marketed by Lesswire and Axis.

One of the neatest Bluetooth products is made by Red-M, a subsidiary of Madge Networks. The device is an Internet access router containing all the usual firewall and security functions that help connect small LANs to the Net, but it also has integrated Bluetooth capabilities. This allows users to synchronise PDAs and notebook PCs with databases held on office networks and they can even use their Bluetooth mobiles ­ when they appear ­ for local voice and WAP services. The idea of a WAP intranet using Bluetooth is interesting to say the least.

The fact that the first Bluetooth products are intended for office use means that the market may develop in a different way from that originally envisaged. Handheld and notebook computers may provide the first large-scale market, with mobile phones coming later. The idea of the personal area network (PAN) may be modified in that the area covered may be expanded from a few metres around the desk to include the full office network. The notebook PC, rather than the mobile phone, may be the centre of the PAN.

Once it becomes common for notebook PCs to have Bluetooth cards, users will look for other devices to connect to them. Bluetooth devices can listen for other devices nearby and can log their presence without trying to connect.

All this will stimulate demand for Bluetooth mobiles, LAN access points, and public services at sites such as airports and hotels. Bluetooth should succeed because it avoids the classic start-up problem of many new communications devices that have no one to talk to. There is no critical mass necessary before real growth can start.

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