Winning Technologies: Bluetooth

Dec. 21, 2004
Ericsson helps create a world without wires.

In recent years the promise of the Information Age somehow has become tangled in a sea of cords. As more and more people carry an array of digital devices, the challenge of connecting phones, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptops, and more -- and keeping all the data synchronized -- has evolved into an enormous challenge. It's a problem that hasn't gone unnoticed by high-tech manufacturers, who have created a dizzying array of software and systems to simplify things. But sometimes it seems that every step forward is accompanied by the proverbial half a step back, leaving consumers frustrated and manufacturers groping for ways to simplify equipment, reduce production costs, and provide more streamlined solutions. Thus, Bluetooth was born. The wireless specification, invented by Stockholm-based L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. and backed by industry giants such as Nokia, IBM, Intel, 3Com, Toshiba, Lucent Technologies, and Microsoft, is poised to take off in a big way. Many experts say that Bluetooth could transform computing environments, communications, and more. "It is a technology with a great deal of promise. It offers an array of possibilities, some of which haven't been thought of yet," notes Joyce Putscher, an analyst at market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group, Scottsdale, Ariz. Bluetooth is named after a 10th-century Viking king who united Denmark and Norway. It uses short-range radio-frequency technology to create a personal area network within a 10-meter area. Bluetooth devices can work on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis, transmitting at speeds up to 721 KB per second. Unlike infrared, it doesn't require line-of-sight connections, it can transfer data automatically, and it offers robust security features, including encryption. That makes it possible for an individual to carry a cell phone or PDA into the office and, without plugging it into anything, receive e-mail messages, key files, calendar appointments, and more. The concept dates to 1994. That's when researchers at Ericsson came up with the idea of creating a radio technology that would "let a person put a phone in a carrying case, pocket, or handbag, totally out of view, and have it exchange data with other devices," says Skip Bryan, Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based director of technology market development for Ericsson. Led by then vice president of engineering Nils Rydbeck (who now heads the Bluetooth initiative for Ericsson from Research Triangle Park), the company began developing basic prototypes and introduced an open specification in 1997. A year later, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group was born, and in 1999 it released the first specification. "These days, you can't win the game if you go with proprietary technology. The opportunity gets bigger if you create a larger market and share a piece in it," notes Bryan. It's a concept that has huge appeal. "Getting rid of cables and finding a better way for personal devices to communicate with one another is becoming essential," says Tom Nyberg, Irving, Tex.-based business development manager for connectivity for Finnish telecom giant Nokia Corp. Yet the ability to automatically beam data and keep different devices synchronized is only the beginning. Bluetooth is able to boost the capabilities of various devices by allowing them to work together. Consider, for example, notebook computers and cellular phones. Typically, road warriors must carry a wireless modem card with their PC to log on without a conventional phone jack. Configuring the system can prove difficult, and PC manufacturers have balked at adding built-in wireless access because of the array of standards, including CDMA, TDMA, and GSM. "Putting all the chips into a single system is cost prohibitive," says Ron Sperano, program director of mobile market development at IBM Corp. in Raleigh. Instead, with Bluetooth it is possible to set a cellular phone down next to the PC and dial in through the existing mobile carrier. "Bluetooth can isolate the user from the complexities of the cellular market. You pick whatever cell phone or carrier you want and simply connect your computer," observes Sperano. In October Ericsson became the first cellular manufacturer to introduce triple-band Bluetooth phones capable of handling voice, Web browsing, and high-speed data access in almost all parts of the world. Wireless Bluetooth headsets are forthcoming. But other possibilities are equally intriguing. For example, Bluetooth will make it possible to load a presentation onto a PC or hand-held device and operate an overhead projector without fussing with cables. "A person could walk into a conference room and, at the push of a button, operate the projector," says Nyberg. Similarly, Bluetooth-enabled digital cameras would allow users to snap pictures and immediately transfer them to a Web site or print them without connecting the camera to a PC or a printer. In fact, Bluetooth-enabled peripherals should begin appearing by late 2001. Printers, scanners, and PC networking cards eventually will allow desktop and notebook users to eliminate the mass of cords that connect under their desks. However, the biggest gains might come from being able to walk into virtually any office and use equipment without connecting to the network. Eventually Bluetooth could allow automated check-in at sporting events, concerts, restaurants, and airports. "A person could download an e-ticket and then, when passing through a Bluetooth network, automatically receive a boarding pass," says Nyberg. In fact, the possibilities are almost endless. In October Finnish tire maker Nokian Renkaat, along with Nokia and Flextronics International Ltd., announced a plan to develop smart tires that could send real-time messages to mobile-phone users to warn them about tire wear, hydroplaning, and theft. The tires, equipped with Bluetooth chips, would monitor temperature, pressure, and other factors. Nokian Renkaat expects to have the tires commercially available by 2001. But the main appeal of Bluetooth centers on the office. PC manufacturers such as IBM hope to eliminate many of the legacy ports that now reside on computers, including serial and parallel connectors. "Each port adds cost and weight, and represents a potential point of failure," says Sperano. IBM initially will offer add-on Bluetooth cards but eventually will build the capability into its line of notebook PCs. Networking giant 3Com Corp., Salt Lake City, is attempting to develop a system and interface to tie together all the various Bluetooth devices. "Unless Bluetooth is very easy to operate and use, it will suffer the same fate as infrared. Virtually every notebook computer built today has an infrared port but almost nobody uses them or understands how to use them," argues Troy Holtby, product manager for mobile products at 3Com. The goal is to make Bluetooth intuitive, autoconfigurable, and highly customizable. The Bluetooth partners also have devoted considerable attention to security. The technology offers public (always available), semipublic (available with a PIN), and private modes (not discoverable or connectable). This ensures that only the right pair of eyes can view an individual's data and that device owners can control how their units interact with other Bluetooth phones, PDAs, and notebooks. Because Bluetooth enjoys enormous industry backing it has attracted interest from more than 2,000 developers. While most analysts, including Putscher, believe that Bluetooth is poised for success in the coming years, question marks do remain. For one thing, Bluetooth products must be practical, powerful, and simple. For another, the price of Bluetooth chips must drop to fuel wide-spread adoption. In fact, not until late 2001 and 2002 is Bluetooth likely to take off in a big way, says Putscher. "It is possible to overestimate the short-term future of Bluetooth, but many people are underestimating the long-term impact of the technology," concludes Nyberg. Adds Ericsson's Bryan: "The concept of Bluetooth and the way that it works fits the sci-fi model we have grown up with. Bluetooth can work with all sorts of devices. It is the right idea at the right time."

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