Column: Blue in the teeth
Loose Wire -- Bluetooth's Teething Problems
For a hugely promising technology that's supposed to let gadgets lose their cables, Bluetooth seems more effective right now at causing sleep, weight and sense-of-humour loss
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 27 February 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It's not easy to tell someone who's been working on the same thing for more than five years that you think his or her product doesn't shape up. But Anders Edlund, marketing director for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, took it on the chin when I told him that all the Bluetooth devices I'd ever used had caused me sleep, weight and sense-of-humour loss. [Bluetooth, by the way, is a standard that allows two or more gadgets to be linked without using cables]. "Er, depending on what Bluetooth devices you're using, the experience can vary," he said evenly.
You're telling me. All the headsets, phones, printer adapters and whatnot I've tried have ended up in the cupboard along with Aunt Thelma's Christmas presents. Er, yes. Turns out those predictions of 100 million Bluetooth devices out there by 2002 are closer to 35 million, Edlund says, and he's reluctant to make a prediction for this year.
OK, all this isn't really fair, given that Edlund's job is to sort out some of these teething problems. His nonprofit group is trying to make it easier for some 2,000 manufacturers to get Bluetooth up and running in their products. "The sole purpose is to ensure that when you open a Bluetooth product, when you get it out of the box, it is in most cases ready to be used in five minutes," Edlund says.
I'm still sceptical. I'd hoped that once Microsoft jumped aboard Bluetooth, it would be plain sailing, the thinking being that if you can integrate the software that runs Bluetooth into Windows, it should be as easy to use as, say, the infrared that every laptop comes equipped with. Sadly, this hasn't happened. Microsoft has recently released an upgrade to Windows XP that includes Bluetooth, along with their first Bluetooth products, a keyboard and mouse. Installing the upgrade takes way too many coffees and reboots, in my view, while using the keyboard required a special dongle [about the size of a lighter] that will then transmit to your wireless keyboard and mouse. After hours of fiddling, I had the keyboard working for about a day and a half before it gave up and I switched to a wireless Logitech keyboard -- which eschewed Bluetooth in favour of the old infrared. That still works.
This is a shame, because the potential of Bluetooth is huge. Some folk are already there: Hand-phone-maker Nokia is about to launch N-Gage, a phone, MP3 player and gaming device wrapped into one: You can play others through the phone network, or your nearby friends by Bluetooth. Expect to see Bluetooth keyboards for hand-held devices in coming months, as well as portable MP3 players that will wirelessly connect to the nearest hi-fi system, feeding music to whichever room you're in. Saab's 9-3 car has a built-in Bluetooth phone which allows you to send data from your palm device or laptop wirelessly.
Bluetooth does not intend to replace Wi-Fi, a wireless standard for connecting computers to a wider network. Instead, think of Wi-Fi as the big hook-up with the outside world, and Bluetooth as the link between the devices in your immediate area. The two complement each other well. United Parcel Service, for example, is installing a worldwide network using both: Bluetooth will replace the cable between a waist-mounted terminal and a hand-held scanner, while the terminal will use Wi-Fi to send the data -- in this case, tracking information from packages -- to the UPS central computer.
The future? With Bluetooth chip prices falling -- from $25 to $5 or below -- there's no reason most peripherals connected to your computer can't dump their cables for Bluetooth. And you could configure your DVD recorder, alarm clock or microwave, for example, on your palm device screen via Bluetooth. Can't find the car keys? Type "find keys" on your PC and it could send a beep to the Bluetooth-enabled key chain that's fallen behind the bookcase. We're some way off, but when this starts to happen, I promise to stop giving nice folk like Edlund a hard time.