Finally, a Bluetooth Investment Worth Making

eLABorations: Microsoft's Wireless Optical Desktop allows early adopters to rationalize their way into a cool new technology

My desk is usually a total mess, and (apart from my ragged organizational habits) I dont know whether most of the blame belongs to the piles of press kits and collateral materials that accompany the products I review, or to the various cables and connectors that those products require.

I can always forward collateral materials to my trusty circular file, but the cables have tended to be a necessary evil, which is why Ive been excited about Bluetooth since I first learned about it.

Bluetooth is a short-distance, low-power wireless networking technology intended to make everyones lives easier by getting rid of cables for things like keyboards and mice and serial sync cradles.

However, after a period of premature marketing promises a few years back, when the technology was scarcely approaching adolescence, Bluetooth started becoming one of those just-around-the-corner technologies that the hype-hardened tech press loves to hate. For one thing, the devices that Bluetooth was supposed to render cable-free were very slow to materialize in the market—although no Bluetooth vendor I meet fails to stress how popular the technology is in Europe.

The most readily available pieces of Bluetooth gear have been PC Card or USB dongle-based transceivers, which turn computers into potential Bluetooth service consumers. On their own, these units provide users with answers to questions they havent asked, such as, "How do I engage in a wireless chat session with someone sitting across from me in the conference room?"

In any case, Im happy to say that Im doing something useful with Bluetooth right now—Im writing this column with a true-blue (and truly, blue) Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo, the Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop for Bluetooth, released yesterday.

For $159, you get a nice keyboard and optical mouse, both of which connect wirelessly to your Windows XP machine through a USB Bluetooth radio, which is included in the package. For $85, you get the same setup, sans keyboard.

Microsofts Bluetooth gear requires Windows XP with Service Pack 1, and if you havent already installed SP1, the software that accompanies the package will do it for you. When you install XP SP1, make sure to select the backup files option—I havent experienced any problems with SP1 yet, but several readers have written in complaining about assorted bugs in the service pack.

I dont see any reason why Microsoft couldnt have made its Bluetooth package available for Windows 2000 and 9x—other Bluetooth vendors support those operating systems. Giving customers reasons to upgrade, well-founded or not, is part of being a proprietary OS vendor.

The process of setting up Microsofts wireless system was probably the simplest of any Bluetooth setup Ive yet gone through. The complexity of discovery and authentication betwixt the separate desktop elements took place behind a typical Windows wizard interface.

The keyboard and mouse use Bluetooths Human Interface Device profile, and the setup supports the Hardcopy Cable Replacement profile for printing, as well the Dial-up Networking profile. Notably missing is support for the Personal Area Networking profile, which is one of the more complicated but potentially very useful Bluetooth profiles. Microsoft has announced its intentions to add support for PAN in the future.

Microsoft also sells a non-Bluetooth wireless desktop, but the Bluetooth version adds greater range (about 30 feet) and improved security to the mix. During setup, I was prompted to authenticate the link between my keyboard and test system by typing in a passcode, which is how most Bluetooth devices handle the task. Also, since Bluetooth is a frequency-hopping technology, its better equipped to evade interference than Microsofts other wireless peripherals.

Most important, though, is that this wireless desktop provides users with a Window to the wider (and hopefully, widening) world of Bluetooth devices, and does so simply and relatively cheaply. The transceiver that ships with the package can accept seven simultaneous Bluetooth connections, so when your cell phone provider of choice gets around to offering Bluetooth-equipped handsets, youll be ready to roll. Also, the transceiver can pop out of the little cradle in which it sits to serve double-duty as a USB Bluetooth adapter for your laptop.

Until recently, Bluetooth has been available for those early adopters whove searched for it, but theres been little that you could do with it. Microsofts Bluetooth desktop throws those early adopters a bone, and allows them to rationalize their way into a cool new technology.

Does anyone really need a wireless desktop? Certainly not, but when that desktop is based on an open, widely embraced technology like Bluetooth, you can call it an investment without lying to yourself.

Is it time to get excited about Bluetooth yet? Talk to me at