Zi enters the Bluetooth zone

A Canadian provider of embedded software technology and educational products and services has signed an agreement with a Hong Kong-based acoustic accessories manufacturer to create a Bluetooth-enabled wireless headset.

Zi Corporation, in Calgary, has forged a deal with Fujikon Industrial Holdings Ltd. to create the headset, according to Peter Ackermans, the vice-president of engineering at Zi.

He explained that his company is largely comprised of engineers, software and linguistics professionals. The company, although headquartered in Canada, has another development operation in Beijing. It also recently acquired Hong Kong-based Telecom Technology Center (TTC), which is the group responsible for executing the Bluetooth design.

Zi provides “what we call intelligent interface solutions,” Ackermans explained. “In our major product line, what that embodies is software which is embedded in devices like cell phones…which allow a very limited keyboard to be used to enter text.”

As an example, Ackermans explained that a user would not have to depress a number on their cell phone key pad several times to get to the second or third letter represented by that number. Instead, a large built-in dictionary of words and semantic filtering logic would predict the words that a user is forming.

It was during the company’s dealings with international customers that it found that “they are increasingly looking for broader solutions to their intelligent interface problems.”

In the case of the headset, Ackermans explained that Bluetooth capabilities would enable a user to do such things as use a cell phone while it is in a briefcase or pocket, without having to pull it out to dial or speak. This could be done through voice recognition technology.

“Now that’s not a function of the headset itself. That would be a function of the phone or of the service provider,” he explained. “But certainly that’s the kind of thing you could do. You could command your phone to do things through voice commands. And similarly, a headset like this might operate not only with a phone; it could also be designed to operate with a computer.”

If users have a multimedia computer, they would be able to stream music through to their headsets as they would to speakers, he offered.

Zi is providing the full electrical design to Fujikon, Ackermans said.

“That is all of the Bluetooth technology itself, which involves controlling a radio module which is then in the phone,” as well as in the headset, he explained. “The full set of protocols which provide the Bluetooth functionality by which the phone and headset co-operate is ours, [as is] the actual circuit design for that.”

Fujikon is then responsible for all the acoustics, such as the earpieces and the mechanical design of the product. The company will also be the manufacturer of the headset once it becomes available next year.

Sarah Kim is an analyst in the area of wireless and mobile technologies with Boston-based The Yankee Group. She said there are a lot of other companies who have, or plan to release similar devices. Unfortunately, she noted, the market might not be ready for this type of device just yet, in part due to the technology.

“At this point, what we concretely have, ready to go, is the hardware part of the solution. That is, they have the radio air link and they can establish a connection between two hardware devices,” she explained. “What they’re still sort of iffy on is the protocol stack that needs to talk to the hardware. There’s so many vendors providing this sort of protocol stack, they need to make sure that their protocol stack works on everyone else’s hardware.”

She noted that there are other headsets coming out in the market, citing GN Netcom Inc. in Nashua, N.H., as an example. The company released its GN 9000 Bluetooth wireless headset in October.

But are they optimal at this point? She said that despite all the talk in the market, headsets still haven’t gone through the whole qualification process.

“I think there needs to be some serious work going on between now and the time they release it out into the market,” she said. “The products that are on the market -I’m not sure if they’re actually achieving any sort of market share.”

She noted that Toshiba’s Bluetooth card is available for purchase in Japan and on-line. “You can actually buy that right now. But what would you do with it?”

Kim said if users purchased two cards they could conduct peer-to-peer activities, “but that’s not too compelling.” She said there was a lot of hoopla on the part of vendors on getting Bluetooth-enabled products to customers, but they were a little ahead of themselves.

“I’m not saying that I think (Bluetooth) is never going to take off. I thinks it’s still very immature in the market,” she explained. “I hate to throw out numbers because I think it’s definitely early.”