The year of Bluetooth?

With devices now appearing on the shelves, the time for Bluetooth may have finally come.

Bluetooth has suffered one of the most drawn-out launches of any technology in history, but with devices now appearing on the shelves, its time may have finally come.

Gadget-lovers who have been following the evolution of Bluetooth--the wireless technology that's supposed to link all sorts of digital devices together--may be forgiven for thinking that it's nothing but jam tomorrow.

Bluetooth was inaugurated several years ago, with what backers like Ericsson admit was a great deal of hype. These gadgets were supposed to be the big Christmas arrival of 1999; two years later, that promised tidal wave of wireless products has failed to materialize.

Over the last six months, however, the jam is finally beginning to appear on store shelves. Consumers willing to splash out a bit and fiddle with an unfamiliar user interface or two can now link a wide variety of digital devices together.

Research data from the latter half of 2001 gave encouraging signs for Bluetooth boosters. In late November, Micrologic Research predicted that five million Bluetooth chipsets would be sold to manufacturers in 2001, growing to 45 million next year. That should mean a sharp increase in the number of items featuring built-in Bluetooth. In fact, manufacturers like Sony, LG, Samsung, IBM, Compaq, 3Com, and of course Ericsson and Nokia, have signed on to produce Bluetooth products.

"This is the beginning of a substantial ramp-up," said Alan Woolhouse, vice president of communications for Bluetooth chipmaker Cambridge Silicon Radio.

A more tangible change has been seen on the high street: a year ago, shopkeepers might never have heard of Bluetooth, but now it's hard not to notice the promotions. "If you walk down Tottenham Court Road today, there are shops with Bluetooth displays in the windows. You couldn't have seen that six months ago," Woolhouse said. "Things are starting to happen. It's only when those products get in the consumer's face that the transition (to Bluetooth) can take place."

Woolhouse says that while some of the more outlandish predictions around Bluetooth, like wireless washing machines, might not happen, there are now real uses for Bluetooth that customers will actually want. He used the example of the wireless headset, several of which are available from vendors like Ericsson and Motorola, and the wireless Internet access point for laptops. "Those are benefits consumers can relate to," he said.

One of the more useful Bluetooth applications is the ability to connect your laptop or PDA to the Internet via your mobile phone, without using infrared or a data cable, or to wirelessly link the PDA to a local-area network.

Add-ons have already been released for the two major handheld platforms out there, Palm and PocketPC, and Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone handsets are also available today from Ericsson and Nokia, among others. As for Psion, the company suspended its Bluetooth PDA plans earlier this year in a cost-cutting exercise.

TDK makes the Blue5 and BlueM attachments for Palm devices. Socket Communications in September launched a WindowsCE/PocketPC-compatible Bluetooth CompactFlash card.

Palm will eventually come out with a Bluetooth attachment that fits into the Secure Digital (SD) card slot on its devices, but the company delayed this item earlier in the year.

Ericsson's Bluetooth solution is to build the technology directly into some of its handsets, such as the R520M, the T39 and the T68, while Nokia offers both integrated handsets (like the upcoming colour-screen 7650) and a Bluetooth battery for the 6210.

If you want to connect your laptop wirelessly in the office, a wireless LAN card is probably your best bet, but for linking to a mobile phone Bluetooth is expected to prevail--WLAN is too power-hungry for embedded devices, at least in its present form. Some laptop makers are building Bluetooth into the hardware, such as Toshiba, which in October launched its first Tecra and Portege laptops with built-in antennae, supporting both Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless LAN.

Sony has been selling Bluetooth notebooks since this summer.

So far manufacturers don't seem to have been put off by Microsoft's decision not to support Bluetooth natively in Windows XP at launch. Microsoft said it didn't have enough hardware to be able to produce finalized software drivers, and will release an update in 2002, but manufacturers like Sony have responded by simply adding their own drivers.

If you fancy adding Bluetooth to your laptop in the form of a PCI card or USB dongle, there are also several options out there--Nokia's Bluetooth battery, for example, comes with a companion PCI card, and Xircom also makes a model. This is where things would have been simplified by native Bluetooth support in Windows, but it is just a matter of installing hardware drivers off a CD-ROM.

What of the user interfaces, which some reviewers have called difficult to use? "That will change," CSR's Woolhouse predicted, remarking that in any case, Bluetooth isn't any more difficult to use than your average VCR.

Some Bluetooth-enabled peripherals are also becoming available, such as a printer from Hewlett-Packard. Sony makes the DCR-IP7E camcorder with built-in Bluetooth (click here for a review).

At the moment, though, it's a far cry from the situation that manufacturers eventually want to come to, where nearly every digital device automatically supports Bluetooth. Despite the slow start, however, organisations like Micrologic predict 1.2 billion chipset shipments in 2005.

Staff writer Matthew Broersma reported from London.

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