One day in the not-too-distant future a new wireless communication standard with a crazy name may allow your laptop, cellular phone and PDA to chat with each other without any language barriers.

Bluetooth, the wireless radio frequency technology named after a legendary Viking warrior, was developed to seamlessly link mobile devices at home and in the office. While it may not be as universally applicable as some would like it to be, industry experts say its longevity in the personal area network (PAN) market is secure.

After a successful year for wireless 802.11-enabled products and the setback of being dropped from the Microsoft XP operating system, some analysts began digging Bluetooth's grave. But, with chip production meeting other analysts' expectations, and a reevaluation of Bluetooth's true marketplace, the technology seems likely to hold its ground, according to Kurt Scherf, vice president of research for Parks Associates, Dallas.

Scherf said that the relative success of 802.11b products isn't entirely relevant to products enabled by the Bluetooth standard.

“I've never seen Bluetooth and other wireless technology as competitive at all,” he said, adding that the misconception of a battle between Bluetooth and 802.11b created a kind of perception of Bluetooth struggling within its marketplace, he said.

Ronald Sperano, program director for mobile market development with IBM, Armonk, N.Y., said the difference between Bluetooth and 802.11b radio frequency chips is in the kinds of cables they replace. “Both technologies are cable replacement technologies. The difference is, 802.11b replaces one cable. It replaces your LAN cable from your notebook (computer) to your wall. Bluetooth replaces multiple cables. It's for low power wireless devices.”

Sperano said Bluetooth's relatively low power consumption makes it more ideal than other existing standards for portable devices.

Still that distinction didn't stop initial enthusiasts from exaggerating the possibilities of Bluetooth, said Kurt Scherf of Parks Associates.

“I think what happened with Bluetooth, and this was the case with a lot of technologies over the last year or two, was there was so much hype that came out of it, he said. “There were so many companies out there pushing applications that I don't think Bluetooth was ever designed for.

“I think Bluetooth has refocused on what it was originally designed to do, which was short distance cable replacement between portable devices. I think that's primarily where it's going to stay.”

Scherf said some companies were trying to bill Bluetooth as way to replace the wiring in a home or office, when, in fact, that idea was overambitious. The original idea of Bluetooth products, Scherf said, was as a more convenient way to perform the functions of infrared data association devices (IRDAs).

“That's what Bluetooth came out to do,” Scherf said. “But you don't have to have line of sight with Bluetooth. It works a heck of a lot quicker, and it's more reliable.”

Even Microsoft may be recanting its earlier dismissal of Bluetooth. Though Windows XP has not yet adopted Bluetooth, Microsoft's CE mobile operating system has been proven compatible with Bluetooth.

Even still, Scherf doesn't think Bluetooth advocates should be biting their nails over the prospect of Microsoft's blessing of the standard.

“I think they may eventually come around to including the drivers for Bluetooth on XP,” he said. “Getting Microsoft's blessing is always a good thing, but it's not a killer for Bluetooth.”

Sperano added that Microsoft isn't trying to torpedo Bluetooth before it gets off the ground, rather, it's traditionally late in imbedding new technologies in its products. “Microsoft's waiting for Bluetooth to reach critical mass,” he said.

Bluetooth chips are already being built into headsets, phones, pocket PCs, printers and, of course, laptop computers. Sperano said IBM sells Bluetooth PC cards for use in its computers, and even builds Bluetooth into one of its Thinkpad models. He noted, though, that IBM is banking on the success of other Bluetooth-enabled products.

“We see IBM following and not leading. We don't think notebooks are going to be the driving engine. It's going to be the cellular phone.” He highlighted the possibility of using Bluetooth to link laptop computers and cell phones for a seamless mobile Internet connection.

As a means of synchronizing portable devices such as mobile phones, handheld devices and laptop computers, Bluetooth seems to have no natural competition. The technology is recognized as more secure than the competition and seems to have the potential to be cheaper than anything else, as well.

There is, however, one application of Bluetooth chips that could bump up against products using the 802.11b standard.

Joyce Putscher, director of converging markets and technologies research for Cahner's InStat Group, described the use of Bluetooth and 802.11b chips as access points in public areas as an emerging new market. She said that travelers in airports can link up to the Internet without dialing into a remote server with the help of Bluetooth. Other users with portable devices can access premises-based information, much like a virtual kiosk at a conference center or shopping mall.

“Both technologies can actually be used for access points,” Putscher said. “But, in a way, they still won't be competing because there are going to be dual-functionality and tri-functionality access points. There are going to be access points that will have Bluetooth compatibility, in addition to 802.11b and 802.11a. So, in that sense, the standards still will be complementary.”

IBM's Sperano said 802.11b is more likely to become the standard for local area network (LAN) access points on corporate campuses, but that Bluetooth is well suited for a shopping-mall-type applications.

Some companies, Scherf said, are actually working on devices that would include both Bluetooth and 802.11b technologies in the same product.

Cahners' Putscher said that though combining short-range and long-range technologies has obstacles, the two technologies can work together to meet different needs.

“When you have co-located solutions — 802.11b and Bluetooth — using the same band, you can have some coexistence issues, when they are very closely located,” she said. “That's why they've been working on some coexistence mechanisms to get around that problem.”

So, with Bluetooth firmly set within the smaller cable replacement marketplace, the technology seems as secure as the market itself. However, should cable replacement technologies become obsolete, as one analyst has suggested, Bluetooth may have to evolve.

But, with a consortium of big-name mobile technology companies pushing Bluetooth-enabled products, Putscher said the future looks bright. She predicts that by 2005, Bluetooth enabled products will outnumber 802.11b products in the marketplace by a factor of 10 or 15. This year, she said, chip sales for Bluetooth have already outpaced all 802.11 chips combined.

BLUETOOTH UPDATE

  • Bluetooth appears to be finding a niche for applications requiring short-distance wireless transmissions.

  • Proponents see a future for Bluetooth in synchronizing portable devices such as mobile phones, PDAs and laptops.

  • Travelers at airports or salespeople on the road could use Bluetooth technology to link up to the Web without dialing into a remote server.

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