Bluetooth: Set to bite this summer

It is almost a year since Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba announced their plans for Bluetooth -- a radio chip designed to replace cable and revolutionise wireless connectivity for PCs, handhelds and mobile phones.

Touted by aficionados as the coolest technology since the microprocessor, the first Bluetooth-enabled devices were shown off at this year's CeBIT trade exhibition. With industry watchers predicting a raft of companies taking Bluetooth on board this summer, ZDNet News takes a look at the cable-free technology that will get our electronic gadgets talking to each other.

Named after a 10th Century Danish king famed for uniting his kingdoms, the Bluetooth consortium has achieved a first in bringing together the computing and telephony industries to solve the interconnectivity conundrum. The aim of the group is to get gadgets talking to one another and to PCs with as little user intervention as possible, and all without cable. A new 'unwired' world awaits.

That world will use wireless, short-range radio to connect devices to one another. Radio technology is provided by Ericsson, with Toshiba and IBM developing a common specification for integrating Bluetooth into mobile devices to make sure it is secure and free from interference. Intel is contributing its chip expertise and Nokia its knowledge of mobile handset software.

Apart from this core team, there are over 500 companies that make up the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) and the technology is attracting plenty of interest and industry backing. With such a volume of corporates chipping in their ideas, the consortium decided that any company joining up has to agree that any technology it adds to Bluetooth will be free of licensing fees. Many believe this is one reason Microsoft -- notably absent from the list -- has not signed up.

With or without Microsoft Bluetooth has a bright future, replacing the under-used, under-developed infra-red (IR) technology which has fallen well short of delivering a wire free world. Unlike IR, Bluetooth does not need line of sight for devices to communicate with each other -- a laptop in its case will be able to 'talk to' a mobile phone in your pocket. Initially this feature raised some alarm. IR guru David Suvak pointed to potential security problems and confusion about which device should be talking to which. While developers admit there was some serious head scratching, the problem is now resolved. Intel's marketing manager Reiner Kreplin says Bluetooth is now as safe as any wireless communication thanks to a layer of encryption, similar to that used in GSM phones, built into the chip. Each Bluetooth unit now has a unique identity so, theoretically, no Bluetooth device should act on data intended for another.

The Bluetooth radio frequency will operate on the globally available 2.45GHz ISM 'free band' and gives a range of about 10m, although this is expected to stretch to 100m as the technology matures. Those radio waves have a bandwidth of 1MB/sec, making Bluetooth 10 times faster than the feeble infra-red standards.

The actual Bluetooth chip can be incorporated into a variety of devices and measures just 17x33x3mm. It is anticipated manufacturing costs will be between £10 and £15, to drop to £3 by 2001. For consumers this will initially mean a street premium of between £6 and £10, according to TDK's technical manager Nick Hunn.

Version 1.0 of the Bluetooth specifications are expected in June, with the first Bluetooth-enabled products -- notebooks, PDAs, mobile phones and headsets -- available from early next year.

Companies committed to incorporating the technology into future products include Motorola, Qualcomm, 3COM Palm, VLSI and Lucent.

Take me to the Bluetooth special.