Telecommunications giant Ericsson recently released the first commercially-available product using Bluetooth, a technology for wirelessly connecting a wide variety of devices. But the product, a headset that communicates invisibly with a mobile phone, is just the first of many Bluetooth-enabled items that will make their way to consumers, if companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, Toshiba, Microsoft and IBM have anything to say about it.
Those companies and about 1,800 others form the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which supports the new technology, and many of them are on hand in Monte Carlo this week for Bluetooth Congress 2000 to show off their concepts and upcoming products.
Originally developed by Sweden's Ericsson, Bluetooth is named after a Nordic king legendary for uniting Scandinavia. The companies who make up the SIG hope Bluetooth can do something similar for them by allowing everything from mobile phones to PCs to handheld computers to refrigerators to talk to each other.
Bluetooth itself takes the form of a small chip that communicates on the 2.4GHz radio frequency, which doesn t have to be licensed. It has a range of up to about 30 feet, plenty for most home and office use, and sends and receives data at around 725kbit/s.
A sample application put forward by Toshiba: when you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock in the morning, it automatically tells your coffee machine to delay brewing the java for fifteen minutes. More useful for businesses, Bluetooth could allow laptops to share files without the need for a LAN, or connect to a mobile phone for Internet access. Unlike with infrared connections, you wouldn't even have to take the mobile out of your briefcase.
The technology has already crept into the public's imagination, and industry experts say the stage is set for wide adoption: according to research firm IDC, the US will ship 103 million Bluetooth-enabled devices in 2004, and worldwide the figure reaches 450 million.
Sales will be driven by laptops and handsets, but IDC analyst Jill House says in a recent report that a variety of devices will also appear: "With a broad array of industry providers and partners, the SIG is capable of pushing the initiative into a multitude of different areas."
Consumers are Bluetooth's ultimate market, as the Ericsson headset shows. But even though products are due to begin appearing this year, the reality is that Bluetooth is simply too expensive to make it into ordinary consumer devices just yet.
At about £20 per device, Bluetooth adds a good £35 to a product's retail price -- not bad for a PC, but not so good for a £200 television.
To begin with, the devices will have to be expensive enough that the price of Bluetooth doesn't make that much difference, says Steve Medina, a worldwide product marketing manager with Toshiba. The first products will be mobile phones and devices for laptops.
Toshiba, which makes everything from fridges to dishwashers, as well as being one of the world's biggest laptop manufacturers, is particularly interested in Bluetooth's consumer potential. But the company doesn't want to end up just doing wireless for wireless sake.
"Consumers must feel Bluetooth is useful. What fits with my home? What works with my lifestyle? These are going to be the kinds of questions people are going to ask, Medina says. "The technology is going to be taken for granted."
For now, however, Bluetooth is still at the stage of getting off the ground, convincing a wide variety of manufacturers to actually ship product. "For the promises to come to fruition, people have to actually adopt and use [Bluetooth]," says IDCs House. "Otherwise Bluetooth will be just another incumbent technology waiting to be picked off."
Bluetooth technology has yet to deliver as promised. But we're closer than ever to wirelessly connecting a PC and other gadgets. Jesse Berst knows what 'The big threat' is: Corporate greed and sneakiness. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.
Take me to the Bluetooth special