Is Bluetooth past its prime?

Summary:For over five years, two of the supposedly killer wireless technologies -- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi -- have been marching to the beats of their own drummers.  Whereas before, the two wireless technologies had almost nothing in common with each other and were designed to address distinctly different needs, now the two technologies are addressing some of the same applications (wireless printing for example).

Download this PodcastFor over five years, two of the supposedly killer wireless technologies -- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi -- have been marching to the beats of their own drummers.  Whereas before, the two wireless technologies had almost nothing in common with each other and were designed to address distinctly different needs, now the two technologies are addressing some of the same applications (wireless printing for example).  Is it time to reconsider whether the market is best served with two wireless technologies where there could be one?

When it comes to Bluetooth -- a wireless technology that has the applications it supports practically baked into it (using something called profiles) -- and other wireless technologies like Wi-Fi that are application-independent (it's up to application developers to make sure devices can understand each other), Michael Foley and David Reed are two men who do not see eye-to-eye on the past, the present, or the future. 

Foley, who is executive director for the Bluetooth SIG (the industry consoritium that oversees Bluetooth's evolution), sees a bright future for Bluetooth.  As the short-range wireless technology finds its way into more consumer products (cars for example), the number of applications getting baked into the protocol is on the rise and so too is its performance to make make sure it can keep up with networks to which it must sometimes transfer data (eg: the newer 3G networks from wireless carriers like AT&T Wireless and Sprint).  One of the benefits of having application support baked into Bluetooth's protocols, argues Foley, is that Bluetooth devices should interoperate with each other right out of the box.  For example a Bluetooth headset should work with a device that can use it (like a telephone) without having to load software or drivers.  This equates to unparalleled convenience for the type of user who likes the ease of use of devices like TVs and VCRs.  You just plug them into the TV network and they start to work.

But the more encompassing a protocol is -- for example, the way Bluetooth incorporates specific applications into the its various "standard profiles" -- the longer it takes for the standards to reach the market and the less room there is for developers to freely innovate on top of it, argues David Reed.  Reed co-leads the Viral Communications research group at the MIT Media Laboratory and helped design TCP/IP -- one of the Internet's most important foundation protocols.  Reed agrees that it's great to agree on how to get devices of certain types interoperating out of the box, but argues that, like with other Internet Protocol-based applications, it's OK to start with non-standard technologies that don't interoperate and to let natural market forces determine the winner.  According to Reed, more innovative products can reach the market sooner when the networking protocol is less all-encompassing, focusing on just transport, for example (the way wired and wireless Ethernet do).  Reed suggests that it may be time to go back to having just one radio and suggests that a more dynamic version of Wi-Fi -- one that can adjust its power based on the type of applications running at any given time -- may be the best course of action. 

Should Wi-Fi and Bluetooth merge and, if so, what would the new radio be called?  BlueFi?  WiTooth? In this edition of ZDNet's IT Matters podcast series, I moderate as Foley and Reed go head-to-head in a debate over the merits of Bluetooth. The interview is available as both an MP3 download and as a podcast that you can have downloaded to your system and/or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in).  

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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