Bluetooth advocates brush wireless LAN concerns aside

Despite the recent advances of 802.11b, Bluetooth will survive and thrive
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

They may not like one another, but Bluetooth and wireless LAN will have to learn to get along, according to manufacturers.

The two technologies have been seen as competing, particularly in home networking market for connecting computers, peripherals and other gadgets. Wireless LAN, or IEEE 802.11b, is better established and has recently been boosted by renewed support from Microsoft and Intel. Meanwhile Bluetooth, though simpler to use, is still grappling with early technical issues; there are still only seven products available on the market.

Both products use the same radio spectrum and wireless LAN can severely degrade the performance of Bluetooth, leading some to predict that wireless LAN will push Bluetooth into a niche role. But the two serve different needs and will inevitably coexist, according to Nick Hunn, managing director of TDK Systems Europe.

Bluetooth's place in networking -- the so-called "personal area network", or PAN -- is assured because of its unique features, including voice, says Hunn. "The PAN may take over from a lot of what's done with the wireless LAN," he said. "Bluetooth provides a voice and data connection, and I believe there will be a very strong market for the pair of them. 802.11b is not particularly portable or power-sensitive. Bluetooth is more personal and flexible. The two are complementary."

Hunn was speaking after a presentation to the Bluetooth Technical Summit on Wednesday in London.

The debate is central to the success of Bluetooth, designed to allow everything from fridges to PCs to mobile phones -- and all their peripherals -- to talk to each other. Early Bluetooth products are focussed on mobile phones, but applications like connecting a laptop to a nearby Internet access point are a big part of what's on the drawing board. And it is these functions that bring Bluetooth into direct competition with wireless LAN.

The wireless LAN camp got a boost recently with the news that it -- and not Bluetooth -- would be supported natively in Windows XP, Microsoft's next major operating system. Intel has also thrown its weight behind 802.11b for home networking, abandoning its push for competing wireless and wired home technologies. Both moves recognise 802.11b's status as a de facto standard; wireless LAN-enabled laptop computers are now common enough that many US airports provide wireless Internet access points.

Bluetooth, on the other hand, is still working out basic compatibility and interference problems. More products will begin to appear in the late summer, but it may be another year before they are up to consumer expectations. "From an engineering point of view, I think it's 12 months before products should go to market," said Hunn. "But because of marketing pressure they will probably be pushed out in three or four months."

Much of the hype around Bluetooth will likely lead to dead ends, as well as producing useful products, Hunn predicts. "Some of the products that are being talked about, like many of the white goods and automotive products, look like pure fiction," he said. "Some will be made and sold, but they don't seem to be ideally suited for Bluetooth."

Still, most analysts are still upbeat about the technology, with Cahners In-Stat predicting earlier this week that shipments of Bluetooth products will rise by 360 percent a year for the next four years, hitting 955 million products shipped by 2005. Growth will be largely driven by mobile phones, with Ericsson committing to integrating Bluetooth in its mobile phones by the end of the year.

Other promising developments are on the way. In the first quarter of next year the Bluetooth profile for audio will arrive, opening the way for wireless Walkman headsets -- a potentially killer application for Bluetooth, experts say.

But one factor that will not go away is the interference between 802.11 and Bluetooth, which arises from the fact that both use the so-called "junk spectrum" of 2.5GHz, available in most countries for use without a special license. A working group is looking at ways of the two technologies coexisting but much of its work is coming too late, according to Hunn. "It's a limited spectrum, products must coexist and they will degrade one another," he said.

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