Is Bluetooth past its prime?

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).  

Topic: Wi-Fi

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Did blue tooth ever have a prime?

    OK, maybe that's not fair but I've just never seen a reason for it to exist. Given it's very limited range and the fact everything has a power cord (or die fast batteries) it just doesn't have a market niche.
    • My thought exactly

      I thought the same thing when I saw the headline for the story... "What prime? When did bluetooth have a prime?"

      I work in the tech sector (Sr Network Tech) and have never seen any bluetooth enabled device come thru our doors. That's pretty sad I would say. I don't know anyone that uses bluetooth devices of any sort whether it's phones, headsets, PDAs, or whatever. I don't think bluetooth even has a reason to exist.
  • This blog and it's author is confused

    Bluetooth is a wireless limited proximity wireless protocol for devices (mice, keyboards, printers, etc.) while Wi-Fi is a wireless LAN technology for allowing mobility in users. Bluetooth connects devices to PC's r other devices but does not support things like TCP/IP, which is typically used with Wi-Fi [for a LAN] (or in a bit, WiMAX [for a WAN]). They 2 protocols are oriented to different objectives and had different design goals. Bluetooth is a dynamic peering protocol while WiFi (and WiMAX) require a DHCP host to assign addresses to the nodes on the network.

    Further, while phones may support both Bluetooth and WiFi, they are serving different objectives. Bluetooth allows one to transfer data from a peered PC to the phone (or a printer or...) dynamically when in a 5 meter proximity or each other, something that WiFi does not do.
    • Perhaps you should listen to the interview...

      before you jump to conclusions.


    It would appear that the free market has already decided. Bluetooth has evolved into wireless's wireless solution for close proximity interace. The automotive industry's adoption of the Bluetooth technology for handsfree and selected data interchange has guaranteed Bluetooth's position in that industry for at least the next decade. Leave the vehicle and the answer is Wixx. In certain (more obvious) circumstances the Bluetooth solution may be best for in-office/home peripheral interface solutions.
    The bottom line is that Bluetooth has become the defacto standard in the automotive environment and the cellular accessory environment and the best is yet to come in this segment - so no ... it is first hitting its stride.
    Old Disti
    • I disagree

      The auto manufacturers are lemmings looking at new profit streams; Bluetooth just happens to be their next big convenience feature (and option on tick list), just as iPod-friendly connectivity is their pet catch-phrase of late.

      If Wi-Fi is indeed looking at invading Bluetooth's niche with interconnectivity between 'puters and printers, it wouldn't be much of a stretch for them to look at other markets with devices such as headsets. Considering Wi-Fi's dominance in internet connectivity, networking and even standard shipment with PCs (whether you want it or not), Bluetooth's close proximity range model falls down, IMO. I mean, if I were a car maker, why simply sell Joe Consumer headset connectivity and limited data interchange when I could sell a total package of internet connectivity and a intergral PC plus all the other goodies INCLUDING the obligatory wireless headset. After all, the more stuff I peddle the better my bottom line is.
  • Some people have difficulty understanding the difference

    Bluetooth is not a 'networking' protocol no more than the infrared protocol that your VCR remote controller uses is. It's can be forced, that is true, but that is not what it is designed for and is probably a misuse of Bluetooth if someone uses it for that function. Bluetooth is excellent for what it was designed to do. For example, my Motorola cell phone and my Dell PDA both support Bluetooth. When I am not near a WiFi hotspot I change the profile to Bluetooth to access the net. My PDA then causes the cell via Bluetooth to connect to the network using GPRS. Using Bluetooth in this example is no different than having a serial cable connecting my PDA and my cell phone, the cell phone is not a network hop or an endpoint as it would be if it were on Ethernet or 802.11b.

    Merging the two protocols might appear to make sense from a 30,000 ft view, but the differences are enough between the two protocols that it would serve no real purpose and perhaps worse, would create something that did neither function as well. My batteries would also last a lot longer on Bluetooth than with 802.11b, if there were an effort to merge the two then the result would require the power of the most demanding protocol which would negate one of Bluetooth's strongest points.