Pulling for Bluetooth

Bluetooth needs and deserves a marketing makeover.

To say that the Bluetooth personal area network protocol has underachieved on cellular handsets in the United States is an understatement. But there are reasons for this lackluster performance. Bluetooth has holes in its implementation and in its marketing, and the sooner its cavities are filled, the sooner it can realize its sizable potential.

Earlier this month, news emerged from the United Kingdom that certain wireless handsets imbued with Bluetooth technology are leaving their users vulnerable to a type of attack called "bluesnarfing."

The bluesnarf attack takes advantage of gaps in the way that certain Nokia and Ericsson phones implement Bluetooths security model, enabling malicious parties to lift data stored on the phones without detection. One Nokia model, the 7650, can even be cracked to enable unauthorized users to connect to the Internet across a compromised Bluetooth link.

Fortunately, most mobile phone users in the United States dont have to worry about being bluesnarfed; they havent a clue what Bluetooth is and would have trouble finding a Bluetooth-enabled phone even if they wanted one.

Bluetooths vulnerabilities and its scarcity in U.S. cell phones are due to the same cause: Bluetooth is a relatively complicated protocol that accomplishes a fairly unglamorous task. The Bluetooth security model is complex. It lets users set devices to be discoverable to other Bluetooth units; it provides for device pairings with PIN authentication; and it manages ongoing trust relationships between devices.

Mobile phones have rather limited user-interface possibilities, particularly as they relentlessly continue to shrink in size. Because of this, implementing Bluetooth security well on handsets requires quite a bit of cleverness. Youd think that Bluetooth has been around long enough for the likes of Nokia and Ericsson to have solved this puzzle, but it seems that there is plenty of work to be done.

While the potential for security vulnerabilities is certainly worrisome, its not the biggest barrier to wider Bluetooth-enabled handset adoption in this country. A larger obstacle is that wireless carriers in the United States havent been able to figure out a flashy way to market Bluetooth, so theyve largely ignored it.

In the United States, cellular carriers provide us with more than just wireless service. Theyre also the main source of our handsets. If carriers dont advertise or sell Bluetooth-enabled devices, then the technology isnt going anywhere in this country. At Cingulars Web site, I managed to find three Bluetooth phones on a page that described phones for customers with disabilities. Verizon and Sprint dont sell any Bluetooth-enabled phones. Meanwhile, it seems as though soon well be unable to buy any phone that doesnt sport a tiny low-resolution camera or a little suite of Java games.

In contrast, Bluetooth has been making great strides in handheld devices and computers—its easy to find a Palm or Pocket PC with a very good Bluetooth implementation. Apple has enthusiastically embraced Bluetooth in its hardware and software, and Intel is planning to include a Bluetooth radio in the next generation of its Centrino chip set.

Computer makers understand the importance of connectivity better than the cellular phone companies do. Bluetooth-enabled phones offer a significant benefit, connecting mobile computers to the Internet over increasingly fast wireless data links.

The bottom line: Bluetooth is a communications protocol that has problems with, well, communication. Its devices need to offer a better security interface to users, and its supporters among handset manufacturers need to do a better job convincing their carrier partners that the technology adds the kind of value for which customers are willing to pay.

Just over a year ago, at the Bluetooth Developers Conference, the Bluetooth special interest group launched a Five-Minute-Ready ease-of-use initiative that was intended to get users up and running with their new Bluetooth devices. However, if the group cant manage to lean on its partners to tighten security and encourage carrier acceptance, the chorus of "Bluetooth is dead" naysayers will sound sadly prophetic.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.