Where art thou Bluetooth?

The long dead 10 th century Viking king for whom the technology is named after notwithstanding, reports of Bluetooth’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

As an open standard, radio-based technology that intelligently automates and connects digital devices without cables, Bluetooth was expected to reach critical mass a half-decade ago but has limped along, failing to live up to the hype.

2002 appears to be the year Bluetooth turns the corner, according to a recent study by London, England-based ARC Group. The research firm predicted demand for Bluetooth mobile handsets will climb from 26.2 million this year to about 100 million in 2003. In addition, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a supporting group of over 2,000 tech companies, is actively pushing for the adoption of the “small-form factor, low-cost” technology.

Just as peaceful King Bluetooth managed to unify the Danes and the Norwegians, developments such as Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc.’s recent beta release of its Bluetooth Software Developer Kit (SDK) for its PDA Palm OS platform are designed to open up the ability for disparate devices such as computers, PDA’s, mobile phones, printers, and headsets to unite and “talk” to each other.

“Picture yourself having a (Palm) m505 with a Bluetooth card in it and a Bluetooth-enabled phone that sits on your belt or in a purse – you’ll instantly be able to access e-mail and browse the Web from anywhere the Bluetooth phone is within a 15 to 20 metre radius…It will enable you to wireless tap into corporate back ends, corporate networks, et cetera. It’s a very efficient, cost-conscious way to access wireless information using your cell phone,” said Michael Moskowitz, president and general manager, Palm Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

The SDK will enable software developers to accelerate work on Bluetooth-compatible programs, Moskowitz said, adding that Palm is also working with hardware manufacturers to provide compatible hardware development kits.

“Palm is supplying the software, the sample code, and all the documentation, for developers who can then develop Bluetooth-based products that will communicate with Palm devices,” Moskowitz said. “We believe that Bluetooth technology is one of the ways that we are going to enhance wireless viability in Canada. We think that it’s one of the best solutions, from a mobile standpoint, that we’ve seen,” he added.

“Other types of devices are coming out – Ericsson and Nokia are all coming out with Bluetooth-type phones. The carriers, resellers and systems integrators need to get behind this to show the true value of the products and bring it together,” Moskowitz said. “I think that what you’re going to see is many of the devices that utilize infrared technology will simply just move that to a Bluetooth-enabled technology as the cost comes down dramatically,” Moskowitz said, adding that the current $40 to $50 price of Bluetooth chips should drop to within $5 to $10 within a couple of years.

Improvements in radio technology and software integration will serve to increase Bluetooth’s viability in consumer electronics such as cell phones and PDA’s, noted Tom Nyberg, business development manager for Nokia Inc. in Irving, Tex. Driving down the price point will move Bluetooth beyond just being a point-to-point technology, Nyberg said, adding that the second phase of Bluetooth will allow peer-to-peer applications, as opposed to just device-to-device.

“Nokia’s bringing our first North American Bluetooth product (hands-free car phone kit) during the first half of this year. We very seldom put technologies into phones that (consumers) wouldn’t use,” Nyberg said.

“Some people have called for the death of Bluetooth, but I don’t think it’s that drastic,” said Jeremy Depow, a senior analyst with The Yankee Group in Canada in Brockville, Ont. Depow said Bluetooth has come across technology- and consumer-related obstacles that have prevented widespread adoption.

“The huge hype over Bluetooth is kind of fading away but there still is great uses for the technology,” Depow said. “I don’t think you’re going to see Bluetooth reach that critical mass – I think it’s going to play an important role eventually, but it will sort of be a value-add rather than a dominating technology. If you’re able to use it, use it in concert with other technologies, then it provides a lot more use for your handset, your cell phone, even a laptop.”

“Over the next year, Bluetooth proponents will kind of pull back from their initial objectives that Bluetooth would achieve world domination because of the current economic environment that faces mobility,” he added.

“Developers have always taken a good approach to it, and that’s a cautious approach. They’re experimenting with it, they’re implementing it in some products, not everything, but in the products geared to tech-savvy consumer or business users, to see how they take off.”