Bluetooth Congress - Monte Carlo, 4-8 June 2001

Bluetooth Reaches PDAs

People have been impatient for Bluetooth products for a couple of years but, at last, the signs are good. The Monte Carlo Congress and exhibition produced plenty of evidence for saying that the products are really almost here. I lost count of the number of PC-Card devices that were on show and there were at least ten LAN Access Points. Most of them have not yet received their full product qualification so can not be sold with the Bluetooth logo but all the exhibitors expect to get past that hurdle very soon. Until recently, there had been a shortage of labs capable of doing the work but there are now 28 of them, so that excuse has gone.

This was the first time that I had seen Bluetooth products on show for the Palm PDAs; there were devices from Tactel, Red-M and Palm itself. Tactel is a Swedish company based in Malmö and it has clip-on units available for the Palm V, Vx and the new m500 and m505 models. All of the Tactel units use the connector on the bottom of the Palms. Red-M is a British start-up company spun off last year from Madge Networks, it was showing a clip-on for the Palm Vx. Both Tactel and Red-M also had Bluetooth jackets for the Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC range. Palm’s own offering is a very small unit that plugs into the SDIO connector on the top of the m500 and m505. It was developed jointly by Palm and Toshiba and is reminiscent of one of those very thin after-dinner mints. It is expected to sell for about $150 and be available towards the end of the year.

Palm has defined a new programming interface to the PalmOS for developers who want to write Bluetooth applications, you can get details from the developers’ website. Anyone who makes a Bluetooth clip-on device will be expected to make their drivers conform to the specification. This should provide a good stimulus for developers. Palm have set up their software so that only transactions initiated by the user are considered valid; this prevents advertisers pushing content to the PDA. This is sure to provoke arguments.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration at Monte Carlo was known as the BlueZone; it was a service provided by Red-M using its Bluetooth server and access points. A large area of the conference centre was covered by the network, which could handle over a hundred simultaneous users. Visitors could borrow a PDA or notebook computer and then walk around checking their email or surfing the web. Access was provided to the Congress intranet using either HTML or WAP. Incidentally, having a very high-speed access to WAP content on a reasonable screen was a revelation – if we could have seen WAP working that well on the mobile networks it would not have suffered the bad press that it has. I think what impressed me most about the BlueZone was that it just worked – Red-M told me afterwards that the network was operational without interruption for the entire four days; it certainly seemed reliable when I tried it.

More Impressions of the Bluetooth Congress

The keynote address of the Congress was given by Nicholas Negroponte from MIT’s Media Lab; as always, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. He maintained that telecomms operators have to find ways of changing their pricing model; at present charges are based on miles, minutes or bits. Miles are rapidly becoming obsolete as the cost of transmission is much less dependent on distance and minutes are vanishing because customers now want to pay a flat fee. The operators are hoping to be able to charge for bits but Negroponte says that even that measure will disappear. He suggests that operators will have to be imaginative and perhaps charge for different levels of quality with the lowest levels being free.

He also spoke about the areas where Bluetooth could be important in the future. One of these is in children’s toys, a potentially huge market. He said that it won’t be long before there are more Barbie dolls on the Internet than Americans! Did you know that the company that makes more tyres than any other is Lego?

One effect that Bluetooth could have is the creation of large ad hoc networks that would grow from small beginnings. This could result in there being public Internet connectivity, probably for free, over large areas of the country as users make their networks available to passers-by. If this happens it will be very worrying for telecomms operators especially mobile ones.

There were very few network operators present at Monte Carlo but a memorable presentation was given by Kenny Hirschhorn from Orange. He was very upbeat and saw Bluetooth as a great opportunity; the future of mobile operators will be with non-voice services. He expects the penetration levels to rise to about 300% in the near future, that means that for every voice user there are probably three or four machines using data transmission services.

He thinks that Orange will become a "life services provider" offering services that help to manage your life. Interaction with network services by voice will become the norm and always-on facilities will allow the network to provide reminders of events, make transactions on your behalf, locate friends and family, wake you up in the morning etc.

The idea that mobile network operators would be threatened by the use of Bluetooth as a network access mechanism provoked a lot of discussion in Monte Carlo. It seemed obvious to me that if the operators see a threat, they’ll offer Bluetooth services themselves. Perhaps the Bluetooth Special Interest Group should look at what operators will want from Bluetooth and make sure that the facilities are built in to the standards.

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