After months of promises, Bluetooth wireless technology is poised to go prime time.
Toshiba one of the founding members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) charged with developing the technology, is preparing to launch its first Bluetooth product in North America.
The device -- a Type 2 PCMCIA card with Bluetooth radio for portable computers -- will ship soon and cost less than $200 (£142), officials from Toshiba America Information Systems said this week.
Bluetooth cards are similar in form and function to wireless local area network cards using the 802.11 radio frequency standard. However, Bluetooth has a shorter range and lower data transfer rates. Whereas 802.11 supports wireless networking, Bluetooth is meant to create "personal area networks" that allow people to share files between devices, such as two PCs or a PC and a cellular phone and PDA. At this time, the two technologies are considered incompatible.
"I think what you'll see this year is that the basic technology will come out," said Steven Andler, vice president of marketing for Toshiba America's Computer Systems Group. Integrated Bluetooth systems is "really a 2001 thing," he said.
Sources say the company will introduce the Toshiba Bluetooth PC Card, for notebook PCs, in the last week of September. The card will ship with software that enables it to work with a number of applications, allowing for functions such as sharing files between computers.
Toshiba expects that a number of other Bluetooth PC Card makers will join it in the market within the next 30 to 60 days, Andler said. IBM, for one, has already announced a Bluetooth PC Card that it says will ship next month.
The introduction of the first PC Card Bluetooth radios is the first milestone in a journey SIG expects will result in widespread adoption of the technology in notebooks, handhelds, cellular phones and other devices.
Andler described a scenario in which airlines would outfit planes with Bluetooth hubs that would allow for the sale of Internet access service to passengers.
Bluetooth must overcome a few challenges before it reaches ubiquity. But even ubiquity doesn't mean success.
"We sort of made IRDA ubiquitous, but we didn't do a good job supporting it," Andler said. IRDA, or Infrared Data Association, sets standards for infrared data exchange between PCs and devices. The technology is rarely used, however.
To win widespread adoption, Bluetooth technology must become cheaper, and win the support of operating system and device makers. While not insurmountable, those tasks will take awhile to be overcome.
For example, costs are still relatively high, even for a PC Card device. "We'd ideally like them (PC Cards) to be under $100," Andler said.
However, Toshiba expects that overall costs for Bluetooth will be driven down by the adoption of the technology by the cellular handset market.
The chip set and antenna required to implement the technology cost between $25 and $35 and between $10 and $15, respectively. A maker of notebook PCs could more easily absorb the cost than a cellular phone manufacturer, whose bill of goods and price to customers is much smaller, Andler said.
Handset makers are not expected to offer Bluetooth for another 12 months or so in North America, due to regulatory reasons. However, Toshiba sees Bluetooth-enabled phones shipping in the first half of next year in North America. It is possible that Bluetooth phones will be introduced in Europe at the end of this year.
Another obstacle, though more minor, is that Bluetooth support is not yet built into operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows or Linux. Bluetooth will not be supported until Microsoft releases its follow up to Windows 2000, known by the code name Whistler, sometime in the second half of next year.
IBM is leading a charge to support Bluetooth on the Linux operating system. The company recently submitted to open source a development kit it calls BlueDrekar.
The next major step for Bluetooth, aside from integration into cellular phones, is integration into notebooks and PDAs. Palm has announced plans to integrate Bluetooth, but has yet to say how it will do so or when.
PC makers such as Toshiba are expected to begin integrating the technology in new models next year.
"Integrated antenna design is an art form," Andler said, due to the metals that are used in constructing a notebook. Notebook makers generally use magnesium in their chassis, for housing things such as screens or to use as supports for plastic chassis.
"You have to do antenna design around that," he said.
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