Why Bluetooth Bites

In the first of a two-part column on Bluetooth, Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin takes on the progress that Bluetooth has made in some corners, but explains why the short-range networking technology is in a state of decay.

Bluetooth is supposed to bridge snippets of information over the air, but will it ever get off the ground? The technologys gestation period has been so slow that it sometimes seems as if it was first invented during the time of its 10th Century Danish namesake.

In the early days, its excuse for lagging came down to cost. In early 2001, Bluetooth was generally too expensive to justify its inclusion. But at a recent panel I moderated that included representatives from Danger Inc. and Nokia, the consensus was that Bluetooth chipsets have now dropped to a price where including them isnt cost-prohibitive. Its certainly not cost-prohibitive for consumers, who can pick up a Bluetooth-equipped Sony Ericsson T68i for free on certain plans.

Now manufacturers claim that the demand isnt there, but surely some vendors see a use for Bluetooth, even if they dont make handsets. The technology is now included in top-flight PDAs from Palm, Toshiba, and HP and is integrated into some notebooks from Apple, IBM, Sony, and now Dell. Its also available for almost every notebook PC and many other PDAs via stubby USB dongles, PC Cards, Compact Flash cards from companies such as Symbol and SanDisk, and even, with the right driver support, in tiny SD cards.

One might draw the analogy of Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth as that between FireWire and USB. The speed difference may make for an apt analogy but the usage is not. For the cable technologies, FireWire is the specialist, catering mostly to digital video and USB is the generalist, accommodating peripherals and, with USB 2.0, higher-speed devices such as DVD burners and hard disks. Speaking of FireWire, when Apple announced it was finally including Bluetooth into its PowerBook line at the last Macworld Expo, the announcement took a back seat not only to the evolutionary technologies of 802.11g and a bigger screen, but even to a gimmicky backlit keyboard.

In contrast, Wi-Fi is a generalist technology whereas Bluetooth is the specialist in linking to cell phones. However, until it gets into far more cell phones, Bluetooth may have no greater an impact on most users digital life than infrared did. Syncing wirelessly with your PDA is a convenient novelty, not an adoption catalyst. Therefore, the the Bluetooth camp is in the uncomfortable position of trying to make the case for its inclusion above and beyond Wi-Fi.

And for now, cell phones — truly intended to be Bluetooths "home turf" — are not adopting the technology at a critical rate. According to the mobile phone database at Phone Scoop, only seven currently available US cell phones offer Bluetooth, with only another four listed as "coming soon." Of those available now, the only one youd probably want to ever use is the T68i.

In my next column, Ill explore why Bluetooth has been suffering from more than just a Wi-Fi inferiority complex, and how the wireless industry could turn Bluetooth from a handset threat to a revenue enabler. (Hint: Its not as a way to sell wireless headsets.)

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.