Easy wireless nets promised in Bluetooth bonanza

Bluetooth, the short-range wireless networking technology, is inching its way toward your digital life in add-ons for notebooks, personal digital assistants, phones, and desktops. It has one simple promise: no-brainer connectivity between devices.

Whether consumers and businesses will find that promise an exciting one isn’t clear. But as demonstrated this week at the Bluetooth Developer’s Conference, that isn’t stopping the development of all kinds of Bluetooth-enabled products.

Bluetooth PC Cards will be among the first products that come to market and will let you wirelessly share a presentation or files between laptops. Down the wireless road, Bluetooth could replace your printer cable. And Bluetooth over wireless application protocol (WAP) services on phones will let you buy a Big Mac even before you enter the McDonald’s parking lot.

Bluetooth Hits the Desktop

Although only a few Bluetooth PC Cards are available today, Intel, 3Com, and Motorola are planning – and showing – Universal Serial Bus adapters that will take Bluetooth to the desktop in the first quarter of 2001. 3Com plans to release its $109 USB Adapter in January. Intel expects its USB adapters to cost just under $100, while Motorola’s will be priced closer to Bluetooth PC Cards, around $200.

3Com also unveiled a Bluetooth Access Point, a device that provides a fixed interface for up to seven Bluetooth-enabled devices to connect to a network. Expected to be available next summer priced around $500, the access point could be used in offices, airports, or other networked public places. Many users could get wireless access to networks through a single Access Point.

Because it has a high-power radio, the Access Point also increases Bluetooth’s range from 10 meters to 100 meters, says Steve Parker, product line manager at 3Com. “That also makes it a little higher cost.”

Demonstrated during the “Bluetooth day in the life” keynote, access points could also be used in a home to allow multiple users to surf the Net at the same time on different devices.

Bluetooth Phones Still Stalled, but Accessories Await

While PDAs can use Bluetooth to synchronize with notebooks and desktop systems, Bluetooth’s real benefit is its capability to use a phone as the PDA’s wireless modem. Add-ons are in the works for Pocket PCs, Palms, and Visors, but their release depends on the availability of Bluetooth phones.

Socket Communications plans to ship a $149 Bluetooth CompactFlash card for Pocket PC devices early next year, says John Doub, director of Socket’s Bluetooth program. “Our CompactFlash card is nice, but is there going to be a phone ready?” he notes.

Besides USB adapters and PC Cards, Motorola is developing a CDMA Bluetooth phone, the Timeport 270. The company expects carriers such as Verizon and Sprint to offer the Timeport 270 in early 2001.

By then, Motorola will sell its PC Card (now available from Toshiba and IBM) directly to service carriers, says Linda Byllhimer, director of Bluetooth strategic marketing at Motorola. “Carriers could offer the phone and PC Card as a bundle,” she says.

Nokia announced its first Bluetooth product, the Nokia Connectivity Pack, here. It brings Bluetooth to Nokia phones in the form of a special battery. Expected to be available in Europe and Asia in early 2001, the Connectivity Kit includes a Nokia 6210 phone with battery and a CompactFlash Connectivity card with a PC Card adapter. Nokia says the phone will offer high-speed data exchange – 43.2 kilobits per second – on Europe’s Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) network, but makes no promises when or if the kit will ship in the United States.

It’s All in the Face

Because Bluetooth is a hardware specification, Bluetooth components should be similar across vendors. Nonetheless, each vendor has developed its own software suite to go with the add-ons.

Besides price, the differentiator is the software, says 3Com’s Parker.

You’ll use Bluetooth software suites to manage interdevice communications, file sharing, and network access. But because no Bluetooth user interface specification is yet established, suites vary in look and feel. Almost all center on device recognition and data sharing functions.

Bluetooth: On the Inside

While early products such as PC Cards and USB adapters will cost extra and offer somewhat limited interdevice networking, vendors expect to eventually build Bluetooth and wireless local area network technologies right into myriad devices from PCs to appliances. Microsoft even plans to integrate Bluetooth support in the next version of Windows.

“The first wave in PC adoption of wireless networking will be as add-on devices, but in phase two, it will be integrated into the platform,” says Simon Ellis, mobile communications manager for Bluetooth at Intel. “In phase three, wireless technologies could be integrated into the silicon components.”

Ellis says Bluetooth and 802.11b are the first wireless technologies Intel will integrate. As for HomeRF, Ellis hints 802.11 is the way to go.

“Although we do have HomeRF products that serve a need today, over the years, it’s true, we believe it’s 802.11b and Bluetooth that will prevail,” Ellis says.