Technology Still Aborning

Bluetooth's coexistence with other wireless networks, lack of standards pose problems for IT.

Microsoft Corp.s recent announcement that Windows XP will ship without native support for Bluetooth sent a wave of concern through a tech community eager to see the fledgling short-distance wireless technology emerge from its trade-show demo stage to the point when solid Bluetooth products become widespread.

Despite the heavy buzz that Bluetooth has garnered over the past two years, the technology has not matured enough to begin to proliferate in the market, nor have questions been sufficiently answered regarding its implementation alongside wireless networks already in place.

For example, the Digianswer A/S Bluetooth PC cards that shipped last fall from Toshiba Corp. and IBM complied with the 1.0b version of the Bluetooth specification. Software and devices developed to comply with Version 1.1 of the specification—which became publicly available only last month—will generally be incompatible with 1.0b gear.

Users of the Digianswer card have run up against this problem with the 1.1-compliant Ericsson R520m phone, for which authentication with the PC card fails. According to Digianswer officials, an updated version of the Bluetooth software and drivers, due next month, will bring the cards into compliance with Version 1.1.

The Bluetooth 1.1 specification provides for 13 profiles that define the procedures for basic Bluetooth tasks such as synchronization, LAN access and cordless telephony. Although one of the classic examples of future Bluetooth devices in action is that of wireless access to a shared printer, the Bluetooth printing profile has not yet been defined.

Troy XCD Inc. last fall released its Wireless Print Device, which enables wireless printing via Bluetooths serial port profile. Troy XCD is a member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group charged with defining the official printing profile, and the company has announced that its hardware will be upgradable to that standard once it is defined. However, lack of an official printing profile has not helped promote development in this area, and the need for firmware upgrades injects additional cost and hassle into infrastructure management.

Early Adopters a Challenge

Whether or not companies look to deploy Bluetooth at their sites, IT administrators are likely to find Bluetooth-enabled devices appearing in the hands of their early-adopter employees in the same way personal digital assistants did.

Putting aside the Bluetooth-related help desk calls that this personally purchased equipment will generate, corporate IT must concern itself with the impact that Bluetooth may have on a companys wireless infrastructure.

Bluetooths spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping method of operation is designed to carry on despite interference in the crowded 2.4GHz range of the spectrum—in eWeek Labs tests, our fruitless attempts to frustrate a Bluetooth connection with a microwave oven helped make this point. A bigger concern, however, is the extent to which Bluetooth steps on the 802.11b networks that are now spreading quickly through the enterprise.

Even if the advent of the higher-speed 802.11a moves most wireless LAN transmissions into the 5GHz space and out of the way of Bluetooth, enough 802.11b networks are currently in place to keep Bluetooth and 802.11 interference issues on ITs radar screen.