Still Waiting for Bluetooth

Expect further delays; don't chuck your crimpers, Cat. 5 just yet.

Erich Berman has spent six months scouring the Las Vegas trade shows in search of elusive quarry: a hands-on experience with the wireless technology known as Bluetooth.

At events such as the CTIA Wireless show, Berman went right to the belly of the beast—the Bluetooth Pavilion—to ask a dwindling number of vendors point- blank when he could buy the products that interested him. The answers, Berman said, ranged from "later this year" to just plain "later."

"If we see half of whats hyped, itll be exciting," said Berman, an advanced-technology consultant who evaluates wireless technology for Northwestern Mutual, in Milwaukee, and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "But we havent seen much of anything."

More than two years after the steady din began, Bluetooth continues to dawdle, hampered by disagreements over protocols, high component prices, interference problems and a dearth of real products to promote further testing and development. The technology—often touted to support anything from on-the-fly wireless networks of PCs to communication between cell phones and toasters—is now suffering a growing lack of support from industry leaders that could jeopardize Bluetooths future before it gets started.

Nevertheless, the technology has its champions, who say Bluetooth can still triumph over competitors such as infrared and the 802.11b wireless LAN protocol. But to do that, it needs to do more than just show up.

"Everyone asks me about Bluetooth, and I cant show them anything right now," said Fran Rabuck, an eWeek Corporate Partner and practice leader for mobile technology at Alliance Consulting Group Associates Inc., in Philadelphia. "And what is out there is too expensive. Why would you even think of investing in these cards when you can get 10 times the speed with 802.11?"

Bluetooth began as a 1994 initiative by Swedish telecom equipment manufacturer Ericsson AB to study inexpensive radio interfaces between cell phones and accessories. By 1997, Ericsson had approached several companies to discuss promoting the technology. The promise of communicating omnidirectionally—and inexpensively—by radio set the technology apart from its predecessors, namely infrared and 802.11b.

By 1998, Ericsson had enlisted the support of IBM, Intel Corp., Nokia Corp. and Toshiba Corp. to form the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group), and in early 1999, they established the first version of the protocol. Though it was far from an official standard, more than 1,000 companies joined the SIG, bringing with them nearly as many ideas for what to do with Bluetooth.

Thus began a steady stream of predictions that initial Bluetooth products would be available by the end of 1999, with widespread deployment of the technology by the end of last year. The majority of the SIG vendors have since morphed those predictions into a promise of initial products soon, with widespread use by next year.

In reality, of the more than 2,000 companies in the Bluetooth SIG today, most have yet to ship any Bluetooth product. According to industry insiders, widespread deployment of Bluetooth-enabled devices likely will not occur before 2004.

The delays are taking their toll, not only on skeptical IT managers annoyed by the Bluetooth hype but also on key industry backers such as Microsoft Corp.

The Redmond, Wash., software company was late to the Bluetooth game but did join the SIG—as a "promoter" company with status equal to that of the founders and other heavyweights such as Lucent Technologies Inc., 3Com Corp. and Motorola Inc.—in 1999. The move was important to other SIG members, which saw operating system support as vital for proving that Bluetooth could communicate more intelligently than infrared.

But late last month, Microsoft officials said native Bluetooth support will not be part of the upcoming Windows XP operating system just days after Ericsson officials announced to the contrary.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows at Microsoft. "There are lots of announcements, but we have not received [what] we need to develop and test."

Wireless industry insiders said lack of support in Windows does not bode well for Bluetooth, especially if Microsoft supports something else.

"There was [once] another standard called Access.bus," said Mark Lummus, vice president of business development at wireless apps developer AppForge Inc., in Atlanta. Lummus served on the committee that helped to create the USB (Universal Serial Bus) standard. "I remember the politics of the situation," Lummus said. "They really needed Microsofts support in [Windows] 95. It never came because we were secretly creating USB. [Today, whos] ever heard of Access.bus?"

Part of the slow maturation of Bluetooth can be traced to the complexity of the features that were supposed to set it apart, particularly its application layer and its ability to quickly hop around in its frequency band to adjust to changing radio conditions.

While Version 1.0 had no real application support, the SIG organized committees to build various application profiles for the next version, which would help Bluetooth devices communicate with one another and coexist with other wireless protocols such as 802.11b, which shares the same frequencies. Members were split into working groups to create application support for wireless LAN interoperability, printing, still imaging, automatic wake-up, geographic positioning, communication within automobiles and so on. The result, observers said, has been myriad companies trying to steer the specification in a way that would benefit their own products.

"Its very hard to have a standard when you havent locked down all the variables," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "The hype takes over."

The giant CeBIT show in Hannover, Germany, last month was supposed to be a grand coming-out party for Bluetooth the technology, if not the actual products. Instead, a demonstration that fizzled when hundreds of devices failed to communicate over a wireless network highlighted Bluetooths difficulties with interference and cross-vendor incompatibility.

The continued wrangling over the latest version, along with a lengthy SIG qualification process and a desire to wait for the latest iterations with better applications and security support, has led a number of vendors to miss promised shipping dates of products based on Version 1.1. 3Com, for example, announced plans to ship Bluetooth hardware in the spring of last year, then amended the prediction to early this year. Now the Santa Clara, Calif., company says it is aiming for June, to coincide with the annual Bluetooth Conference in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

At that time, 3Com plans to debut some modest entries—several PC cards and a USB dongle—while it waits for upcoming versions of the Bluetooth standard to support more application profiles, officials said.

Ericsson, which last year spun off a division dedicated to Bluetooth, has tried to keep hope alive with more products than most—including a phone, a wireless headset and a system called Bluetooth Local Infotainment Point, or BLIP, that will let Bluetooth devices communicate with billboards.

While the early buzz about Bluetooth stressed ease of use, it also made bold implications about price. Bluetooth, according to its advocates, was going to beat infrared by being smart and omnidirectional, and it would beat 802.11b by being less expensive. But the high cost of the radios needed to build Bluetooth-enabled devices ranks high with critics.

"The available products still cost too much," said Ed Suwanjinar, product manager for Microsofts mobility group, who said the companys cell phone operating system, code-named Stinger, wont soon support Bluetooth. "The price of the hardware needs to be $5."

Today, the cost of a Bluetooth radio remains around $40, according to Simon Ellis, co-chair of the Bluetooth SIGs Marketing Working Group and a marketing manager at Intel, in Santa Clara, Calif., which makes radios for PCs and laptops.

"The $5 Bluetooth price ... will happen with stability and volume in the next three to four years," Ellis said. "[But] it will be a build-to-order scenario for a while."

Many potential corporate customers said they dont intend to wait breathlessly for Bluetooth, not only because of its ever-nascent status but also because it doesnt meet needs that 802.11b and infrared dont already address.

But despite its litany of obstacles and shortcomings, industry faithful continue to carry the torch for Bluetooth. Red-M, a subsidiary of British company Madge Networks NV, which specializes in Bluetooth access points, recently received $43 million in venture funding despite the lagging economy.

"With all new technologies, where the first egg is laid and the first chicken is born is in the PCs," Ellis said. "The feathers will arrive this year, but it will be two or three years before you can pick up devices off the shelf."

Others remain hopeful but said Bluetooth should learn not only from the failure of infrared but also from the success of 802.11b, which works because its features are layers deep.

"Were definitely following [Bluetooth] because as a mobile organization, this could have significant benefit," said Lester Morgan, senior manager of technology at the National Football League, in New York. "Well just keep our fingers crossed that it materializes in some useful fashion."