Microsoft has dropped plans to support Bluetooth in its next version of Windows, citing frustration at the speed at which the platform is developing and the lack of stable Bluetooth hardware.
The company will launch the next version of Windows, dubbed Windows XP, in the second half of this year. But while third party software developers will be able to write software enabling Bluetooth hardware to run on Windows XP machines, Bluetooth devices will not be able to seamlessly connect to Microsoft-based PCs as many had hoped.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows portable devices and peripherals to connect to one another and to PCs. Ericsson invented it as a cable replacement technology for mobile phone peripherals, but the platform is now expected to connect everything from internal car parts to home appliances.
That's part of the problem, Microsoft says: Bluetooth has evolved so rapidly, and in so many directions, that it hasn't had a chance to stabilise. "The hardware has developed more slowly than we initially anticipated," said Mike Fole, Microsoft's wireless architect. "There's no stable hardware to test on."
He said Microsoft may add support to XP later, but it will not be available out of the box.
The decision highlights Bluetooth's continuing struggle to define its market -- and to ship working products.
Many in the industry expected fully-functioning products to be readily available by early 2001, but they remain few and far between, and those that are available have been found to have compatibility problems with Bluetooth devices from other manufacturers.
Bluetooth has also faced other hurdles, such as conflicts with military radio frequencies in France, Spain and Japan (now mostly resolved) and concerns over whether it would be safe to take along on airplane flights.
Intel was a key player in expanding Bluetooth's role beyond consumer electronics into the world of the PC, and plans to release built-in Bluetooth for PCs this year, as well as selling Bluetooth as a PC add-on. The chip maker downplayed Microsoft's decision, but admitted Bluetooth is moving at a frustratingly slow pace.
"One of the things the Bluetooth Special Interest Group found out was that interoperability is more challenging than was originally conceived," said Mike Bonello, Intel's business client marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
"If Microsoft was to come out and say that none of its future operating systems will support Bluetooth, that's a problem," Bonello said. "Even if you can make something work that isn't supported, it sends a bad message about how stable the technology is."
Given that Windows XP will be shipping in the latter half of the year, the timetable for Bluetooth to show up in a stable form may appear to have been pushed back to late this year or early next year. But Intel and other developers are more optimistic: Intel believes working Bluetooth will be available by the end of the summer.
But developers are in no hurry to rush products to market, having been burned by past marketing failures. It is now generally agreed that marketing campaigns around WAP (wireless application protocol) probably did more harm than good in hyping a technology with limited consumer appeal. Likewise, early implementations of IrDA, the infra-red specification now common on everything from handheld organisers to laptop computers to mobile phones, was originally too difficult for the average consumer to bother with.
"Intel's position is that we mustn't disappoint users," said Bonello. "We're not trying to beat anybody to market, we'd much rather launch a stable, working technology. In the business world you can tell someone to wait for Service Pack X, but you can't tell consumers that."
The real boost for Bluetooth will only come when it is included as standard in popular devices such as handheld computers, mobile phones or PCs. Ericsson, for one, has promised to begin releasing Bluetooth-enabled handsets in the second quarter of this year.
"I don't know when there will be a Bluetooth-enabled iPaq or other handheld, and that is needed next," said Carsten Schmidt, associate analyst with Forrester Research. "CD-ROM drives took off when they were built in at the plant, and you didn't have to buy one separately. The same is true for Bluetooth."
Soon all your digital devices could be talking to one another, without wires. Find out how with the Bluetooth special
Microsoft's announcement that XP won't ship with native support for Bluetooth has the tech media in a tizzy. That said, Jason Brooks reckons Bluetooth is for real and predicts that we should look forward to the sort of basic cable replacement tasks for which the technology was designed. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.
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