Bluetooth Slips into the Mainstream

Mike McCamon of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group is preaching Bluetooth's staying power in the enterprise, despite a dearth of gee-whiz headlines.

You have to feel some sympathy for Mike McCamon. He runs the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, and basically, he saved the SIG from meltdown when it was about to be torn apart by members trying to announce next years product when this years product wasnt yet working. And he did it. And now, the SIG members are saying, "But nobodys talking about us any more!"

Its true. Theres a widespread perception (I think entirely wrong) that Bluetooth "has failed" and "has missed the window" and "has given way to Wi-Fi"—and what has actually happened is quite the opposite.

Bluetooths most spectacular success to date is one some hands-on managers will recognize: in the factory. If youre surprised, youre not alone.

"I think some of the members found it a surprise," McCamon said. "I kind of like to live by the rule that the best inventions are ones which people use in ways you never intended. You think of BT as something used for neat little audio-technology cable replacements. Then you find that the concept of putting something (like) Bluetooth into a big brick and throwing it into a vat and finding out the temperature is actually a good idea."

Hes referring to a survey the SIG published in August about new uses for Bluetooth.

Clever and great is clever, and it is great. But garnering headlines isnt the same thing as being mainstream; its being mainstream that creates market presence, not the gee-whiz articles in gadget mags. "Ericsson does the remote-control cars; is that mainstream? No. Is it going to make it win? No! But is it clever and great?" McCamon would rather win than score PR victories.

And naturally, that focus has cost him some political levers. Im one of those who would love to have big-headline news to report; even so, I can see that making the stock in the warehouse obsolete before youve shifted it is not the basis of a good business. But there are people who would rather have headlines. They want good headlines, too.

McCamon was in London this month, picking up on the messages of European SIG members. I spent some time with him, and then chatted with a few of the members.

Their main focus was not what he was told in Detroit, where the members are looking at "what will the auto industry expect in a standard vehicle in five years time?" In Europe, SIG members are concentrating on a problem that probably will bewilder the typical American executive: how to stem the tide of fake Bluetooth devices.

Its a serious problem; already, TDK estimates that 50 percent of devices being sold through phone shops at retail, are counterfeit; by the gift season at the end of the year, it could be as high as 85 percent.

Thats not failure. It only feels like failure to headline addicts.

Corporate technology managers are often wise old birds who know the difference between hype and reality. But lets face it: The new breed of corporate PC managers are more likely to be excited by new ideas—and theyre infected by the Moores Law madness of personal computing.

They tend not to understand that wireless tends to be slower to develop than Pentium silicon. When a Bluetooth SIG member emerges from a meeting saying, "This is our next-generation product!" PC-trained techno-weenies tend to rush off to their friends saying, "Guess whats coming out next month!"

The result is crazy: If nothing happens for three months, they think youve gone away.

Bluetooth hasnt gone away. You can tell whats about to happen by looking at whats approved; and its not new chips, perhaps, but it is new profiles. "I think it takes a decade from first shipment of volumes, to where you can say its accepted. Digital photography is only just there, for example," observes McCamon.

Over the next year, the new profiles, which hes excited about, are all to do with audio. "The irony is that one of the core use cases for Bluetooth in the next 12 to 24 months is an older one: the idea of hands-free in the car." And that, of course, is going to be one of the big counterfeit opportunities, too—but its not the newest bit of technology in the book.

The reality, McCamon says, is that it takes at least 12 to 18 months for a new Bluetooth technology to make it through to production. Even now, while everybody is proclaiming the wonders of Bluetooth 1.2, the market is probably in for a shock, because its not yet a given that it will be approved for release this year.

But hes almost certainly right to say its a success already.

Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week, and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.