Is Bluetooth wait over?

An affordable wireless standard may finally be here. So let's move past the wait-and-see stage and turn mobile apps loose.
Written by Hailey Lynne McKeefry, Contributor
There has been a lot of talk about Bluetooth, but most of it has been just that: talk. Anticipation of the wireless standard taking hold is old news. But the waiting is finally over, and the first ready-for-prime-time products are trickling into the market. By year's end, a flood of Bluetooth-enabled, enterprise-worthy devices is expected.

Bluetooth uses radio frequencies to establish automatic, transparent wireless connections among a wide range of computing and telecommunications devices (including laptop and handheld computers, mobile phones, headsets for wireless phones, and printers) so that users can connect to standalone devices, the corporate network, or the Internet. This short-range radio frequency (RF) standard connects devices that are within 30 feet of each other.

The Bluetooth standard uses frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum communication in the 2.4GHz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band, in which unlicensed devices are permitted to communicate in most countries. A variety of other devices also use the ISM band--including baby monitors, garage-door openers, and cordless phones, as well as 802.11b wireless networking equipment. Making sure that Bluetooth and these other devices don't interfere with one another has been a crucial part of the design process.

Hailey Lynne McKeefry, a frequent contributor to ZDNet Tech Update, is a freelance technical writer based in Belmont, California.Bluetooth provides a speedy wireless connection, particularly for connecting to the Internet or to the company LAN via a mobile device. As long as you are within 30 feet of a Bluetooth access point, you can log on with a Web pad, cell phone, PDA, or notebook computer.

Bluetooth fast facts
Data transmission speed:
Actual throughput:
Radio band:
Max. distance from access point:
30 feet
Line of sight:
Not required
Built-in encryption and authentication:
Frequency-hopping scheme:
1,600 hops/second
Number of certified end-user products:
Total number of certified products:
More than 250
Number of Bluetooth SIG members:
More than 2,000 companies

Bluetooth's rated data transmission speed is 1mbps, while data rates (actual throughput) are limited to 720kbps within the 2.4GHz band. In addition, it is affordable; manufacturers estimate that adding Bluetooth as a feature will cost about $15 per product at first, but that by mid-2001, the necessary chips should cost only about $5.

Bluetooth capabilities are planned for a variety of peripheral devices as well, including printers, digital cameras, and cellular phone headsets. Untethered from the cables and cradles now needed for data synchronization, the devices will sync data over a Bluetooth connection.

In conference rooms, Pocket PC PowerPoint presentations will be transmitted from PDAs to projection systems. Users will exchange electronic business cards without establishing the line of sight required by infrared, send each other small files, and print documents from the network. Through the closest Bluetooth access point, IT administrators will access the documentation of the products they are servicing.

Products on the way
Today, the number of devices that incorporate the standard is almost negligible. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has identified 72 end-user products that are qualified for Bluetooth. Including components, development tools, and software, there are more than 250 certified products--but the Bluetooth SIG includes more than 2,000 companies. It may be slim pickings now, but product availability is expected to soar. The market research firm Cahners In-Stat forecasts that shipments of Bluetooth-enabled equipment will reach 955 million units in 2005, a five-year compound annual growth rate of 360 percent.

The proliferation of these devices will be a major security concern in the enterprise. While there is little doubt that these wireless devices could open serious security holes, Bluetooth has built-in encryption and authentication, which makes it quite secure. The standard's frequency-hopping scheme, which makes 1,600 hops per second, adds to its safety. For their part, vendors are creating enterprise software with heightened security that incorporates Bluetooth and other wireless standards. ReefEdge's Mobile Domain, for example, uses layer three technology to secure connections from a Bluetooth-enabled device to a corporate network.Today, a number of wireless standards exist in the marketplace: 802.11b, HomeRF, and infrared. Each has its own niche, although 802.11b and Bluetooth boast the most compelling advantages. Bluetooth is designed for low-power portable devices, is affordable and easy to use, and doesn't require line of sight for the devices to communicate like infrared (IR) does. Because Bluetooth is based on radio-wave technology, devices can communicate through objects such as walls, clothing, and briefcases.

Although 802.11b offers faster speeds (11mbps in the 2.4GHz radio band) than Bluetooth, it is significantly more expensive and power-hungry. Industry pundits predict that the two standards will coexist peacefully in the enterprise, and some chipmakers are exploring the possibility of creating chipsets that integrate both standards.

Another wireless standard that is still around is IrDA (Infrared Data Association) IR. Infrared is fairly reliable and doesn't cost very much to build into a device, but it is a line-of-sight technology. The standard, which was developed many years ago, stumbled due to a lack of drivers and limited usability.

Compared to IR, RF standards such as Bluetooth's are easier to use and more reliable and can handle more data. Infrared is almost always a one-to-one technology. With IR, you can send data from a desktop computer to a laptop computer, for example, but not to multiple devices simultaneously. With a Bluetooth-enabled handheld, for example, you could transmit a presentation to every person in the conference room without having to connect with everyone individually.

HomeRF, as its name suggests, is aimed at those in households who do multimedia applications such as streaming audio and video. HomeRF is a combination of two standards (DEC and 802.11), which makes it more expensive than Bluetooth although slightly faster at 1.6mbps. Although the standard may remain in the consumer marketplace, there is little hope that it will meet the needs of enterprise users.Questions of interoperability have delayed Bluetooth adoption longer than anyone expected. In March 2001 at the CeBit show in Hanover, Germany, organizers tried to create the largest Bluetooth network to date, but without success. Major manufacturers such as Motorola, Ericsson, Siemens, and Microsoft had a difficult time getting their devices to work together.

More recently, the standard has made strides toward seamless interoperability. Version 1.1 of the Bluetooth standard includes core conformance test requirements that ensure some level of agreement with the spec. In addition, to be qualified, new products must meet interoperability tests against predefined profiles. Perhaps most effective are the quarterly unplug fests, where manufacturers test their devices with those of other vendors. Also, the Bluetooth SIG is working toward a category called Designated Product Interoperability Testers (DPIT), which would require that products be able to operate with products from specific manufacturers.

Bluetooth took another hit earlier this year when Microsoft announced that it wouldn't support the specification in its upcoming XP operating system. However, the company has promised to support Bluetooth later this year if production-level Bluetooth hardware and software is available.

Cell phones and notebooks
Now that many of the holes in the specification have been filled and interoperability efforts are clearly defined, a significant number of products may come to market by year's end. Today, several Bluetooth-enabled cell phones are available, as are PC cards that add Bluetooth functionality to notebooks. But notebooks that more closely integrate Bluetooth are nearly available.

Compaq, for example, has announced that in August it will ship its new Evo notebooks with a multiport module with both Bluetooth and 802.11b capabilities. Meanwhile, cellular phones are more readily available: Motorola's Timeport 270 and Nokia's 6210 phones support Bluetooth with an add-on module, while Ericsson plans to ship its Bluetooth-integrated T39 phone this summer.

Bluetooth may not have arrived just yet, but it appears to be right around the corner. While most enterprises will choose to take a wait-and-see attitude, IT managers should give Bluetooth a serious look. While all companies want to ensure that products are available, that they work together, and that security won't be compromised, IT managers should be proactive and test solutions as they become available. Adding a few access points in strategic areas, such as conference rooms or remote offices, might put your company ahead of the Bluetooth curve.

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