How to address Bluetooth's braindeath: Market it better

Summary:The Bluetooth SIG -- the chaperone of Bluetooth Standards -- has come up with a series of icons that could potentially allay some of the confusion over what it takes for two or more devices with Bluetooth radios in them to wirelessly interoperate with each other.  They appear below.

The Bluetooth SIG -- the chaperone of Bluetooth Standards -- has come up with a series of icons that could potentially allay some of the confusion over what it takes for two or more devices with Bluetooth radios in them to wirelessly interoperate with each other.  They appear below.

 

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Imagine if, when you bought a WiFi card, an Ethernet Card, or a computer or a PDA with networking built-in, and the manufacturers of those devices also said, "Oh, by the way, the way we've built this, the only thing you can do over the network is connect to a wireless keyboard and mouse." 

One reason the Internet works so well is because the end-points (like your PC) are free to run any application they want over the Internet's networking protocols.  In fact, they often run multiple applications simultaneously (browser, IM, VoIP, FTP, etc.). As protocols go, the Internet's are application agnostic. In other words, although one Internet protocol may be better suited to certain types of  connectivity than the other, there's no specific application functionality built into such Internet protocols as TCP/IP or UDP/IP. Even better, the physical radios used in both wired or wireless scenarios to modulate signals through copper or the air haven't a clue as to what's being pushed through them.

Using a straw as an analogy, no one tells you that the straw can only be used for a strawberry milkshake.  In fact, no one tells you that you have to use the straw to drink something. With the Internet's protocols, it's completely up to the end points (the brains on either end) to decide what goes through the "pipe" and how to turn what comes out on either end into something that's meaningfully functional. This versatility basically means that any end-point can interoperate with any other end-point provided they want to. They just need the right brains to do it.

In contrast, Bluetooth as a networking technology is brain dead. Based on the way Bluetooth-enabled products are sold today, the radios are tightly coupled to specific applications. OK. Some might argue this is brain-enabled.  In other words, whereas other networking technologies are of no mind and you basically have to add the brain that decides what to do, Bluetooth-enabled products come with their own brains. These brains are something that until very recently, the Bluetooth SIG -- the consortium that oversees Bluetooth -- referred to as "Bluetooth profiles."  What this essentially means is that just because you've purchased two Bluetooth-enabled products doesn't mean you'll ever be able to get them to work with each other.  For two Bluetooth-endpoints to interoperate with each other, they each needed to support the exact same profiles and even then, it's just a probability they'll work together. Not a guarantee, as many have found. Profiles exist for specific types of applications.  For example, there are different profiles for stereo sound, hands-free headsets (for telephony), printing, and input devices (like mice and keyboards). 

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The net net to someone who buys technology products is that there's really no such thing as "Bluetooth compatible."  You can't just look for the Bluetooth emblem (pictured above left) on a smartphone and assume that it's going to work with everything else that has the same emblem.  This no doubt has been a source of confusion for buyers and frustration for users who unbox products thinking they're going to work together, only to find out they don't.  I've experienced this problem first hand multiple times.  For example, for the longest time, I wanted to be able to listen to stereo music with an Audiovox XV6600 Smartphone that I was using.  HP sent me its Bluetooth stereo headset to test with the smartphone.  The folks at the Bluetooth SIG assured me that even though the phone didn't come with support for the stereo profile, they could get me the software I needed to upgrade the device. It never happened.  As a side note, I just received a Motorola Q smartphone for testing and judging by its Bluetooth configuration screens, it supports the Hands-free, Personal Networking, Stereo Headset, and Keyboard input profiles.  More important (cutting to the confusion debacle at hand) is what it says on the box that the Q came in. On the front panel, it says:

Bluetooth Capable (for certain profiles)

Most people don't even know what a profile is.  But OK. Let's turn the box over to see if there are any details.  Sure enough, on the left panel, here's what it says:

The Motorola Q supports multiple Bluetooth profiles including: A2DP, wireless headset*, and handsfree** (Supports core specs 1.2 for headset and handsfree).  It supports the following object exchange (OBEX) profiles: OPP, FTP, BIP, BPP.

*Accessories sold seperately

**For car kit and accessory compatibility go to www.verizonwireless.com/bluetoothchart

Five things come to mind.  One, do you see that "1.2" part? It's critical. It could make or break compatibility.  Subtle houses of cards like this are a big problem.  Two, this isn't Motorola or VerizonWireless' fault.  Three, the Q isn't even listed on the Web page that the box refers to (that's VZW's fault).  Four, look at the other phones listed there and link through to the charts for one of them. Charts that list exceptions and that talk about what has not been tested, etc.  It's a compatibility debacle.  Five, I'm not making this up. 

Rather than quit while were so far behind that there's no chance of catching up, the Bluetooth SIG has now figured out a way to better market this brain death.  Instead of the highly nuanced language of "profiles," the SIG now refers to them as "Experiences" and, so that buyers may better identify where there's a probability of interoperability (not a guarantee, just a probability), the SIG has created the aforementioned new series of icons for some but not all experiences. Fore example, Dial-Up Networking (the profile-cum-experience that's necessary for a PC to wirelessly connect to a smartphone as though it were an Internet router) is missing. The idea is that, instead of listing all the techno-babble on the side of the box like the Motorola Q's box currently does, it can display icons associated with the experiences it supports.  Go to Best Buy, hold up two boxes, and if you see matching icons, you're in luck. 

Well maybe.

Topics: Wi-Fi

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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