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    What now for Bluetooth?

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    Bluetooth is a technology with a long and difficult development history that has seen it change identity with all the aplomb of a chameleon. But some claim it has lost its way through the changes? Steve Rogerson sends a health check from this year’s Bluetooth World Congress.

    The Bluetooth industry nervously celebrated the technology’s fifth birthday at the Bluetooth World Congress in Amsterdam in June. Nervously, despite curves showing a steady growth and market watchers predicting more growth; nervously, because those curves are below the levels proponents wanted and nervously because the overall market has yet to accept the technology as a major player.

    On the surface, the figures look good. After a total of 40 million units equipped with Bluetooth shipped in 2001 and 2002, shipments in this year alone are set to hit the 75 to 80 million units mark. Despite this, however, the market acceptance appears poor. Indeed, according to a survey by Frost & Sullivan, Bluetooth has registered little more than a blip on the corporate radar.

    The survey looked at companies across 11 countries in Europe and found 69% had no plans to use Bluetooth, 22% were thinking about it and only 9% were already using it. Compare that with wireless LAN where 42% are already using it and 15% have the technology in their plans for the next 12 to 18 months.
    “The penetration of enterprises is fairly low,” said Michael Wall, an industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, “but there are signs that it could improve.”

    However, the Bluetooth industry is facing an identity crisis. Whereas it would like to be a corporate player, it knows that its base market so far is in the consumer sector, but it also knows that if all Bluetooth succeeds in being is the technology of choice for connecting headsets to mobile phones, then it will have failed. Perhaps it was this that evoked a note of desperation in some of the speakers. There were even noticeable groans when John Hodgson, chief executive officer at Cambridge Silicon Radio one of the pioneers of Bluetooth, said confidently that the killer application for Bluetooth would be linking hi-fi systems with their speakers.

    Dead-end niches

    No one would deny that this is a possible niche market for the industry and one that should be investigated, but to say that is the killer application that will drive Bluetooth forward is not what the industry wants to hear.

    In fairness, Hodgson was confident about the technolgy’s future in general, announcing that Bluetooth will ship twice as many units as Wi-Fi this year even though it has been around only half as long. The target though he said was 500 million units a year and to reach that he said, “We need to do a lot better as a community.”

    A better base on which the industry can build its future is the automotive market, and on that just about everyone was agreed. New safety regulations implemented and on the horizon look set to outlaw drivers with mobile phones to their ears. There is also a reluctance to promote driving with bits of cable across drivers’ bodies as this potentially poses a safety hazard as well. A handsfree kit utilising a wireless technology seems the obvious answer, and Bluetooth is ideally placed for that.

    Ibrahim Mohamed, senior product development manager for AT&T Wireless Services in the US, explained how momentum was now building stating that, “Any distraction in the car is a distraction. A lot of people are talking about distractions and not just phones.” But, safety he said, was not the only driver (pardon the pun) in the automotive market, pointing to statistics that show 60–70% of all calls from mobiles in the US are from within a car. Users in their cars have no communications alternative and therefore making calling easier and safer could be seen as a revenue generator for mobile operators.

    “We need to make this convenient and high quality for the user,” he said. “Bluetooth makes it easier to make calls and is the only real universal car kit.”

    Others, however, were still looking to the so-called personal area network (PAN) as the saviour for Bluetooth, prompting Alex Hum, a senior research and development manager at Orange France, to say, “We don’t talk about killer applications but a killer environment where what is personal to the user is important.”

    PAN promise

    True, you might say, but he then raised a few eyebrows among those calling for the jargon in the industry to be reduced when he said operators should become “life service providers,” offering a range of devices to consumers. And, he closed a few ears when he took his predictions into the world of science fiction with talk of rings that can monitor temperature, moisture and so on and thus make decisions about a person’s state of mind and trigger calls to them based on that.
    “The ring could trigger a call to a friend saying the person needs cheering up so give them a call,” he said. “This can generate call revenue.”

    Such a suggestion seems to smack of desperation again and is not the type of practical, here and now application that people are looking for.

    Despite such silliness, the idea of the PAN is potentially sound. It refers to a situation where Bluetooth acts a cloud connecting different devices that a person may be carrying. In fact, the new version of the Bluetooth standard — 1.2 due to be implemented in September — includes an upgrade that lets such devices share the bandwidth more intelligently.

    Personal gateway

    Helping this along is personal mobile gateway (PMG), a technology from IXI Mobile that can build applications on top of Bluetooth. “European and Asian operators see PMG as an opportunity to increase ARPU,” said Joyce Putscher, a director at market watcher In-Stat MDR. “US operators are lagging in this, being only at the earliest stages of investigation.”

    The concept behind PMG is that nearly all phones are built as talking devices first and still only a small percentage are built as all-in-one devices but they are the high consumers of data. What PMG does is turn a normal talking phone into a wireless router for other data devices. “The reason people don’t use data services,” explained Hans Reisgies, business development manager at IXI Mobile, “is the user interface on a phone. It is not conducive to using data, so PMG can route the data through Bluetooth to a thin client device such as a text manager. PMG acts as a router and server in a low cost cell phone.”

    The idea is that whereas the cost of an all-singing combined phone, camera and PDA may make some baulk, especially among the younger audience, using PMG lets the user buy the phone first and then add to it as time goes by and new services make data functionality more compelling. Reisgies said he expected three or four operators to launch PMG phones and devices this year, but Putscher believes that operators are only looking at using these devices for initial trials and what happens next will depend on the results of those trials.

    “There probably will be some devices this year and more next year,” she said.
    IXI though, is not keeping all its eggs in the Bluetooth basket and is making sure the technology will work just as well with wireless LANs and Bluetooth rivals such as Zigbee. “Our architecture is not dependent on the technology,” said Reisgies.

    No interference

    The Bluetooth industry itself has taken the first steps in acknowledging that it too must work with other technologies rather than competing against them. This has manifest itself in the alteration of the Bluetooth specification to stop interference problems when Bluetooth is sharing space with, say, a wireless LAN. Version 1.2 has a frequency hopping system that avoids frequencies that other technologies are using. This version also aims to improve connection times and quality of service and closes a security loophole that could let a hacker acquire access codes by scanning for Bluetooth transmissions.

    “The only hacking threat we know about is covered in 1.2’s anonymity mode,” said Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG. “And even then, Bluetooth is a short range technology, so you have to be close to make an attack. We know of no-one who has broken into a Bluetooth link, and that is not the case with other wireless technologies.”

    Despite such reassurances security worries remain, particularly surrounding Feel technology. This is being developed jointly by Sony and Cambridge Silicon Radio and refers to a situation in which devices close to one another will automatically make the Bluetooth connection and in some cases even transfer files without user interference. For example, a digital camera placed next to a laptop could automatically download its photographs.

    It has been developed for the best of reasons — in response to complaints that Bluetooth is difficult to use — but from the initial response the developers know that if Bluetooth is to be accepted in an already cautious corporate market, then safeguards must be placed on such a development.

    Feel technology maybe a Bluetooth offshoot but it encapsulates the dilemma the technology faces. The industry is worried that Bluetooth is going to be left behind and so is striving for innovation but such innovation can only succeed if it is firmly routed in reality. It must have the maturity to convince potential users that the ideas behind it are solid.

    Bluetooth technology does have a lot of potential and does have markets where it provides a clear advantage, the automotive sector being an obvious example. It is also positive that it is acknowledging by changing its own specifications that working with other wireless technologies is a must. Building on these sensibly is the way forward for Bluetooth, thrashing around desperately looking for new and ever more far-fetched markets is a sure fire route to nowhere. It is clear from the attendees at this year’s centrepiece that both camps are still alive and kicking. Which one will win only time will tell but it is in the industry’s own hands.

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