The Root of Bluetooths Problems

In this second part of a two-part look at Bluetooth, Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin explains the main obstacles hampering the technology today, and how it can stop living in dentured servitude.

Read the first column, "Why Bluetooth Bites"

In my last column, I discussed why, despite some momentum from the handheld and PC camps, Bluetooth needs a good cleaning. Indeed, the medicine cabinets of the entire Osmond family may not hold enough Whitestrips to rid Bluetooth of its trouble spots, which include:

  • Compatibility. While companies such as Logitech, Sony and Jabra have extended Bluetooth to devices such as cordless presenters, camcorders and headsets, some of their devices will pair only with another specialized device! That means that if you thought getting a Sony camcorder was going to help in talking to your Sony Ericsson T68i, youll need to adjust your focus. Even Microsoft, which recently introduced a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, states on its site that the transceiver included with these input devices "may work" with other devices. As a recent review of the devices demonstrated, that doesnt exactly inspire confidence.
  • Substitutes. For most point-to-point uses of Bluetooth, there are usually simpler and cheaper RF technologies that work perfectly well. True, they lack Bluetooths frequency-hopping security, but they also dont require a combersome "pairing" process. Peripheral vendors have made wireless input devices for years, including Nintendos successful WaveBird wireless controller. Unlesss youre worried about hackers stealing your Super Smash Bros. Melee combos from two floors away, youre probably safe. For the simplest detection technologies, theres also RFID, which truly promises to bring ordinary items the ability to broadcast information.
  • Competition. Wi-Fi may be Bluetooths greatest competition for network applications, but there are many other threats on the horizon. "WirelessUSB" is a proposed standard from Cypress Semiconductor that uses similar frequency-hopping technologies as Bluetooth to extend PC peripherals. Other short-range and low-power technologies that are starting to attract attention are the superlatively named ultra wideband and the inscrutably named Zigbee Alliance. The death blow, however, could come from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which has been exploring a shorter-range, lower-power version of its flagship standard that could move the technology into lowest-power wireless devices. Nextel is already considering handsets with integrated Wi-Fi.

Bluetooths misfortunes have often been attributed to technical complexity in both its design and usage; the average user trying to configure the first Bluetooth Pocket PCs to work with Bluetooth cell phones produced more profanity than the last Eminem CD. However, the bottom line is this. Manufacturers will produce what carriers want and carriers are terrified that Bluetooth will destroy their control over the platform. They fear, among other things, that some rogue application could wreak havoc on their networks as it uses a Bluetooth handset as a dumb wireless modem. Its no accident that the T-Mobile Sidekick, which sells itself to carriers based on its miserly network usage, includes no Bluetooth. (Why it includes no synchronization software, though, is more of an enigma.)

Most of Bluetooths significant challengers are still two to three years away from being serious rivals. For Bluetooth to make the most of its narrowing window of opportunity, its backers must convince carriers to adopt a different view of the technology. The success of broadband routers demonstrated that consumers want to share bandwidth with different kinds of digital devices. Of course, theres even less real estate on the average belt than in a New York studio apartment, but carriers could develop plans that embrace the multi-device consumer.

This runs the almost inconceivable risk of making calling plans more complex than they are today, but one need only look at recent initiatives such as Nokias N-Gage and Sony Ericssons HBM-30 Bluetooth MP3 player to see that these wireless specialty products are startng to gain momentum. By being proactive, carriers can get customized and complementary Bluetooth products out in the marketplace that would offer consumers more choice and reduce churn. More likely, though, theyll wind up like the broadband ISPs, scrambling to charge for home networking that is available for free.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

More from Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin: