Bluetooth Wireless Quietly Gains Support

This time, Bluetooth backers are determined not to turn the hype machine up full blast.

This time, Bluetooth backers are determined not to turn the hype machine up full blast. As a result, even some of its biggest supporters are damning the personal wireless networking technology with faint praise.

Among the new batch of Bluetooth products expected this summer: 3Com plans to ship its first Bluetooth product on June 1 — a PC Card with a $149 list price. 3Coms product will let laptop PCs talk to other Bluetooth-enabled devices to exchange files or print documents without wires, among other potential applications. About two months later, 3Com will release a Universal Serial Bus (USB) version, priced at about $135.

But at least initially, 3Com executives are setting low expectations for the launch, saying Bluetooth products will gradually filter into the market, rather than experience strong demand out of the gate from corporate information technology (IT) buyers.

"Its going to make peoples lives incrementally better," said John Yoon, director of product management at 3Coms mobile connectivity division. "For IT departments, Bluetooth is really another tool in the tool chest."

Why the soft sell? In part because Bluetooth, a short-range wireless protocol that provides data throughput of up to 721 kilobits per second, has been bad-mouthed lately for being overhyped. For example, some companies marketed Bluetooth as a simple local area network technology, whereas most technology managers are considering IEEE 802.11b, a wireless LAN specification that is faster and provides greater range.

Analysts now expect slower growth for Bluetooth. A Cahners In-Stat Group report last month estimated that 955 million Bluetooth devices will ship in 2005, almost one-third fewer than its previous estimate of 1.4 billion devices. Bluetooth also suffered a setback when Microsoft said it wouldnt natively support the technology in the first release of Windows XP, slated for the fall.

Vendors hope expectations and reality will grow closer once Bluetooth appears in more computer and communications products. Hewlett-Packard is working with 3Com to introduce its own Bluetooth PC Cards and a Bluetooth printer accessory next month. Meanwhile, Compaq Computer last week rolled out the Evo Notebook N400c, which includes an optional USB module for Bluetooth connectivity, due in August.

"Bluetooth is still in its early-adopter phase, but we want to show our customers were cutting-edge in this area," said Shalini Bath, a Compaq marketing manager.