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July 24, 2002
[ Column: Bluetooth primer ]

Loose Wire -- Wireless With Strings
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 August 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
 By now you've probably heard of Bluetooth technology, but chances are you're not quite sure what all the fuss is about. I don't blame you. If its name -- better suited to a dentist specializing in unhappy teeth -- isn't enough to put you off, then you might be forgiven for wondering, "Just how is this going to improve the quality of my life?" I'm not about to suggest you go Bluetooth-crazy, but I reckon it's worth getting a handle on because one day Bluetooth will make linking your PC, gadgets and telephones a lot easier.
 
First, let's get the name out of the way: Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald. Through his impressive communication skills -- no one is too specific about this, but I suspect that as a Viking they didn't involve throwing baby showers and Tupperware parties -- King Bluetooth united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century. Hence Bluetooth is a wireless standard that allows users to unite through communication. Get it? Gadgets with no fuss. Or cables. In short, one gadget with Bluetooth built in -- say your handphone -- should link up automatically with another gadget -- say your laptop -- without you doing much more than putting them in the same room.
 
This works using the same free part of the radio spectrum that WiFi, or 802.11, wireless devices use. But while WiFi connects devices over longer distances, Bluetooth gadgets only hook up within a 10-metre range. Where WiFi evangelists dream of large networks without wires, Bluetoothers dream of little informal clusters of computers, printers, personal digital assistants, handphones, headsets, cameras, floppy drives and CD-ROMs all connected wirelessly. Unlike infrared they don't need to be pointed at each other, and they'll also work through a door or wall.
 
It's a great idea, so why isn't it happening yet? Well, when Bluetooth first appeared in 1998-99 the hype raised expectations to a silly level, particularly since there was only a handful of products with Bluetooth built in. But three years on, there are still problems: There are now dozens of Bluetooth products, and more in the pipeline, but Bluetooth chips are still too expensive, meaning that few of these gadgets cost less than $100. That's too pricey for most people.
 
Part of the problem, I'm sorry to say, is Microsoft. The latest incarnation of their Windows software, XP, doesn't have Bluetooth capability. If you set up your PDA within sight of your laptop, chances are you'd hear a funny buzzing sound and the two would try to set up an infrared link to each other. If you plug a peripheral -- say your new printer -- into your computer the PC would recognize the printer and probably install the drivers for you so you can get printing. The same goes for most WiFi cards. Not with Bluetooth.
 
The result is that it's easy to set up a Bluetooth Ericsson handphone, say with an Ericsson headset -- just turn them both on, fiddle in the phone menu and hey presto. Try the same with the phone and a Bluetooth-enabled PC and you're asking for trouble. Manufacturers get around the lack of Windows support by building their own software, but it's a bit like asking your plumber to redesign the living room: Everything looks a bit odd and nothing seems to work properly. Gadgets come tantalizingly close to hooking up with each other but then fail to do what they promise.
 
Having said that, there are occasional glimpses of its potential. AmazingTech's Bluegear offers a low-cost ($125) way to hook up two or more computers to share files and an Internet connection, via charming little blue pegs, or dongles, that fit into the USB ports most computers come with nowadays. Anycom, which focuses exclusively on Bluetooth, has some nice gadgets, including a wireless-printer module which slots into your printer's parallel-port slot. Now, in theory, any Bluetooth device can print out stuff from across the room, cable-free. After much tweaking and a little outside help I was able to get all these to work, and had that heady sensation one sometimes gets from good technology. I had to sit down.
 
But all this is still too fiddly for prime time. And just because two gadgets are called Bluetooth doesn't mean they'll set up house together. Bluegear's dongles won't yet talk to other gadgets, though AmazingTech say something is in the pipeline. Ericsson's T68i phone worked like a dream with the Ericsson CommuniCam MCA-10 camera and an Ericsson headset, but won't talk to a TDK dongle or the Anycom Bluetooth Compact Flash card.
 
This is not what Bluetooth is supposed to be about. So while some pundits say Bluetooth has arrived, I'd suggest some caveats: Buy with care, don't expect too much, and be ready for a bit of pain. The future may have fewer wires, but there are still plenty of strings attached.

July 21, 2002
[ Column: Ethel fights back ]

Loose Wire -- Tea, Sympathy And Service

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 July 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

If you want good customer service on-line, try impersonating a little old lady. It worked for me.

Frustrated by the poor response to my own e-mail enquiries to big companies -- I'm not naming names here, except to say I'm still waiting for replies from the likes of 3Com, Fujitsu and Linksys -- I figured things might work better if I metamorphosed into Ethel M. Girdle, a septuagenarian who claims to have typed her way through World War II while flying Spitfire fighter aircraft and is a dab hand at growing roses and laying on tea parties for the local pastor.

First stop for Ethel was fixing her Zanussi dishwasher. "Hello, young man (or lady)," she wrote to the customer-service centre in Britain. "My washer makes a noise like one of those newfangled leafblower things and my crockery doesn't get clean. Can you send one of your nice young chaps round to fix it, I'm having the vicar for tea on Friday and if he sees the china in this state he'll think I've gone over to the other side. Yours, Mrs. Girdle." Zanussi responded with impressive speed and grasp of the gravity of the situation. "Dear Mrs. Girdle," they wrote. "Sorry to hear of the problems that you are experiencing with your dishwasher, if you would kindly let me have your postcode I will be able to look up the details of your nearest service centre for you so that one of our engineers can come and repair your appliance so that your china gets nice and clean again."

My own experience of airlines and the Internet has been woeful, so I was interested to see how my fictional friend got on. She wanted to visit her grandson and fired off e-mails to several airlines: "I'm coming to Hong Kong/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore to see my grandson, who is doing a grand job running one of your banks. This is not the first time I've flown (I used to fly during the war, don't you know) but it's been a while. Is it OK to bring my cocker spaniel, Poppy? He won't be any trouble, unless you've got rabbits on the aircraft! And may I bring my own teapot on board? I do like a cup of tea in the afternoon."

Ethel's still waiting to hear from Japan Airlines and Qantas, while British Airways' Web site had no functioning e-mail address for ordinary folk. Singapore Airlines offered a form letter, Cathay Pacific was somewhat intimidating: "Please kindly note that domestic animals of any description are not permitted to be carried in the passenger cabin on any Cathay Pacific flights." But Virgin Atlantic rose to the occasion well: "I can assure you that our crew will make sure you receive a nice cup of tea on the flight or more than one in fact! It would not be necessary to take a teapot with you. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic do not have a licence to carry pets of any description, even though I am sure he is no trouble."

Next, Ethel decided to buy a computer. "I need the following," she e-mailed IBM: "A nice keyboard (if possible an electric one, the manual ones tire me out) and a nice screen to look at. Could I use my TV instead, and save a few dimes? It's a big one, though black and white and takes forever to warm up. My grandson says I need a CD drive but I think I can just drag the stereo over and plug it into the computer, yes?"

IBM were very helpful. "Please note that all our NetVista (desktops) come with a standard keyboard. However, we are unsure of what you mean by "electric" vs. "manual", they wrote, before gently pointing out that hooking up her black-and-white TV and CD player to the PC was a no-no.

Encouraged, Ethel went back for advice on the Internet: "Do I need some sort of passport, or special goggles, or something? My grandson says the connections are very fast these days, I don't want to mess up my hair." IBM was reassuring, saying a passport wouldn't be necessary.

Overall, I was impressed. Customer service on-line has a long way to go -- shame on those companies that didn't reply -- but at least there are some bright and helpful folk at the end of those e-mail addresses. And for those of you not getting customer satisfaction on-line, feel free to impersonate Ethel. I know I will.


about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

see below for subscription links -- sorry, but the columns are only available to subscribers.

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Old lady loose on the web
Terms for the rest of us
My wild night with Deep Purple

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