Bluetooth: What is the potential? Analysts disagree

It could change the way you live in your own home, or it could be dismissed as yet another geek toy designed to chain us to our sofas... Jane Wakefield investigates

Meeting the needs of the mobile worker forms much of the vision behind Bluetooth. Imagine returning from the airport with your laptop in the boot of the car -- ordinarily it would be impossible to interrogate the computer, but using Bluetooth your mobile phone could update your e-mail without leaving the driving seat.

Setting up a presentation would no longer require a spaghetti junction of cables -- the printer could automatically deliver print-outs and the audience could simultaneously watch the presentation on their own Bluetooth-enabled laptops.

This scenario provides a small glimpse at the practical applications Bluetooth will enable, but networking the home is perhaps its most exciting potential.

Much talked about but never realised, the vision of a truly networked house full of gadgets talking to one another is touted as a technological dream. But will the consumer see it that way, or will such a vision remain the subject of futuristic speculation?

Inteco analyst Mark Riseley accepts Bluetooth could provide an easy solution for networking homes, but is not convinced it is something consumers necessarily want or need. "People are not crying out for Bluetooth devices," says Riseley. "They will inevitably be asking, 'do I want to switch on the lights using my mobile phone?' It seems a bit like taking a hammer to crack a nut and may not be considered worth the money."

Even if consumers are willing to pay money for devices that control security or lighting it will be a long time before Bluetooth-enabled TVs, microwaves and videos become the norm, according to Riseley. Taking a somewhat pessimistic view, Riseley reckons the truly networked home is about fifty years away.

The vision of the unwired world, he argues, carries with it the assumption that consumers are comfortable with gadgets and electronic devices, but can your mother programme the video yet? If Bluetooth goods are cheap, user-friendly and widely available, people will start buying them but Riseley thinks it will be up to the manufacturers to convince us we need it.

According to TDK's technical manager Nick Hunn -- a Bluetooth developer -- Bluetooth will come cheaply to the consumer. "In theory there could be a premium of up to $100 (£60) but I suspect it wont be loaded as highly as that," he says. A few years after it is launched consumers can expect to pay less than £10 on top of the RRP of a product for Bluetooth capability and with phone manufacturers predicting that 80 percent of handsets will be Bluetooth-enabled by the end of 2001, the technology already has a guaranteed audience.

As for networking our homes there are two main arguments: The first predicts a master device controlling everything from the video recorder to the microwave that will replace the PC as the technological hub of the home. The other suggests the PC will remain at the centre of a networked home. According to Jupiter analyst Noah Yasskin, the latter is more likely: "I don't see a TV-hybrid device replacing the PC," he says. Instead Yasskin anticipates a home with several devices, all with limited jobs, with the PC as the central control centre. Bluetooth, he says, will sit happily with a PC-centric networked home, although he concedes this prediction remains some way off.

Hunn disagrees and suggests a more rapid acceptance of Bluetooth products. More significantly, he argues, the sheer power of Bluetooth will change the assumptions we have about electronic devices. With cables gone, Hunn imagines a future where the idea of having a particular gadget for a specific job will no longer have any meaning. Mobile phones will double up as TV remote control units and your Walkman could end up as the CD ROM drive for your laptop.

In the schizophrenic future of electronics, choices about what we want from technology may become as obsolete as the cable Bluetooth replaces.

Take me to the Bluetooth special.


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