3Com offers Bluetooth PC card, but questions remain

3Com Corp. announced the availability of a new Bluetooth PC card for notebook computers Tuesday. Bluetooth is a wireless networking standard designed to eliminate cables and allow devices such as PCs, phones and printers to communicate wirelessly.

The card, called the 3Com Wireless Bluetooth PC Card, offers a pop-out XJACK antenna of the kind used in PC card modems from U.S. Robotics Inc. – a company 3Com merged with in 1997 – and configuration software that automatically identifies any Bluetooth-enabled devices in the area, the company said. The card also offers multiple levels of security, including password authentication to enable communication between devices, 3Com said. The 3Com Wireless Bluetooth PC Card will be available worldwide for US$149 starting in June.

The Bluetooth standard has been the subject of industry hype for a number of years, though only a few products have so far made it to market. A number of companies offer wireless headsets and PC cards, and Hewlett-Packard Co. has demonstrated a Bluetooth-enabled printer. The volume of hype but the dearth of products, however, has led to something of a Bluetooth backlash within the industry.

“Up to this point, it’s been a slow start (for the technology),” said Sarah Kim, an analyst with the Yankee Group Inc., which is based in Boston. If Bluetooth were a movie, she said, “I would have walked out by now,” but she stays because of the promise the technology holds.

Despite the slow spread of Bluetooth, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the 2000-plus company body that created and administers the Bluetooth standard, has “made tremendous progress” on the specification, Kim said. Getting products like headsets and PC cards to market is important in that it helps give consumers a tangible item to associate with the technology, she said.

Bluetooth does have a lot of industry weight behind it, boasting such companies as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp., Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc. as Bluetooth SIG members. Bluetooth companies will have to work hard to properly market the technology and the products that use it, as well as to educate consumers about various wireless technologies, Kim said. Kim expects that this will being to happen in earnest by the end of 2001.

Bluetooth is widely seen as likely to come into competition with the 802.11b wireless Ethernet standard, another wireless networking protocol that is not compatible with Bluetooth, but offers higher transfer rates. Interference and bandwidth issues, however, may force companies to choose between one standard or the other.

Because of this, the Bluetooth SIG is “pushing (Bluetooth) beyond what it was intended to be,” from a replacement for cabling between peripheral devices to a higher-capacity, multipurpose networking standard, Kim said.

“It’s dangerous to play beyond your niche,” Kim said, as other niches may have other products that serve them better.

3Com, in Santa Clara, Calif., can be reached at http://www.3com.com/. Bluetooth SIG can be found online at http://www.bluetooth.com/.