Bluetooth stays in the pink

There has a been a torrent of articles recently saying that Bluetooth is dead and should be consigned to the wastepaper basket of technology history. There was even an interview with Sean Maloney, an Intel VP, who said that Bluetooth had lost the battle with IEEE 802.11b. Considering that Intel is very active in Bluetooth matters and a founder member of the SIG (Special Interest Group) these comments seemed ill-advised, to say the least. In fact, Maloney later issued a retraction and apology to the 2800 members of the Bluetooth SIG.

Nevertheless, there's often a grain of truth in this sort of story - was there one in this case? 802.11b is a wireless LAN system, designed for that purpose, whereas Bluetooth was conceived as a low-rate, short distance cable replacement. There's no battle there, not even a skirmish. However, Bluetooth has expanded its horizons and there now exists something called the Personal Area Network (PAN) profile, which (amongst other things) specifies how a Bluetooth device can transport any protocol that can be carried over Ethernet. This lets a PC with a Bluetooth card link into an existing LAN which has a Bluetooth access point. This scheme works fine but at about a tenth of the throughput of 802.11b. It can not be considered as a competitor for serious wireless LAN access. The PAN profile was only devised as a way of giving some extra functionality to Bluetooth-equipped PCs. If this was the battle scenario, then Bluetooth had lost before it knew what was happening.

It is true to say that Bluetooth will be used as a LAN access technology just as 802.11b will be used as a wireless method of connecting printers to PCs. There really aren’t many other areas where they will compete. So let’s forget this battle business.

The technological challenge is now in the area of co-existence. Many users want their PCs to incorporate both Bluetooth and 802.11b and several companies, such as Mobilian and Symbol Technologies, have come up with schemes to avoid the interference issues. The Bluetooth SIG is also studying the problem. It won’t be long before there are dual-mode PC-Cards supporting both standards.

Meanwhile, a new idea has appeared from a start-up company called BlueTags, which is making luggage tags incorporating Bluetooth. The idea is that it reduces the chance of your bags going astray and also lets you know when they’re about to come out onto the conveyor. Neat, but how much would you pay for that?

Bluetooth is also going into the car. The SIG is looking at many different uses for the technology in the automotive industry. The first to appear is likely to be a hands-free kit that doesn’t require your mobile phone to be plugged into the car system but connects via Bluetooth. You wouldn’t even have to take the phone out of your briefcase.

New members are still joining the SIG at a rate of about a hundred a month and the SIG has now employed a PR company. The rate of announcements of Bluetooth products and technology has gone up sharply and there is now something new almost every day. Bluetooth is certainly not dead.

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