Bluetooth blues

Bluetooth promises the world, or the operation of all within it -- that is, if you can get it to work in the first place.

commentary Bluetooth promises the world, or the operation of all within it -- that is, if you can get it to work in the first place.

A Google search for "Bluetooth" and "frustration" returns 35,900 hits. A surprisingly low number, considering how much frustration I've had actually getting my "Personal Area Network" or piconet to provide some kind of productivity gain. (Apparently a "piconet" is a Bluetooth PAN consisting of up to eight active devices in a master-slave relationship -- I'd be happy to get two devices talking to each other in any kind of relationship. I'd be even more amazed if anyone's found a useful reason for a "scatternet", consisting of up to 10 overlapping piconets.)

The concept of a Personal Area Network came from MIT's Media Labs, developed by Thomas Zimmerman and other researchers, and later supported by IBM. The initial method of connecting the increasing number of personal devices -- mobile or smart phones, personal digital assistants, and pagers -- was based on the principle of "capacitive coupling", or using the natural conductivity of the human body to transmit data. From this came inventive concepts such as wearable computer devices.

At around the same time as Thomas Zimmerman's idea (in 1994), Bluetooth was developed in Sweden by Ericsson, joined by Nokia, Toshiba, Intel, and IBM. The technology is now used by thousands of companies, and has been standardised as IEEE 802.15. Recent Gartner research suggests that more than 65 million phones will support Bluetooth by the end of 2004. Take-up is slower than first expected, but as prices for Bluetooth chips fall, the number of devices with this technology will start to increase. Early adoption has been slowed by incompatibility between devices, and there's still no "killer application" to drive the technology.

I question the vision that "the power of the Bluetooth vision begins to really emerge when you consider a world of devices intelligently connected and carrying much of their communication load automatically". Most of the time, my Bluetooth phone establishes a connection with the Bluetooth car kit, but sometimes it doesn't -- for no particular reason. Restarting the phone generally fixes this problem.

I feel we're still a long way from the halcyon scenarios the Bluetooth technology suggests.
Getting the phone to establish a meaningful dialogue with my notebook is a different matter. Three Bluetooth wireless cards later, still no success. Although there is an IEEE standard for Bluetooth, there are different Bluetooth "protocol stacks". They are not, according to Nokia, all the same and not all will work with my Nokia phone. They can't recommend a card that will work, but they can recommend a compatible stack -- it's my responsibility to work out what cards are best to purchase.

But maybe it is the phone that is the problem? Some Bluetooth cards specifically state they won't work with Nokia phones. A number of Web sites have documented the incompatibilities between different Nokia phones, especially when it involves Bluetooth connections between different manufacturers. This is a new phone that (should) be running the latest version of Bluetooth though.

It could also be a telco problem, since the phone does -- for a short time -- manage to establish a Bluetooth connection while dialling the Internet, before returning an error. Optus has been very helpful, but they suggest that it could be the phone, or the Bluetooth card itself.

I feel we're still a long way from the halcyon scenarios Bluetooth technology suggests. I'd be happy if I could just place the phone next to my notebook and synchronise my contacts. Then again, maybe that's just me. I've always thought there's something very wrong with IKEA's approach of selling people a bunch of timber pieces, with instructions in Swedish and an Allen key. Having conquered the furniture world with complexity, Bluetooth could be their assault on technology.

Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at or on 02 9805 9759.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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