Waiting for Bluetooth

The Bluetooth standard will have your devices talking wire-free, but not for some time.

Bluetooth development got a boost Tuesday, when 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, and Motorola joined the five founding companies of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group to form the Bluetooth Promoter Group. It will push Bluetooth development and test for interoperability, with the aim of getting handheld devices to talk to PCs.

"Bluetooth is a low-cost radio frequency with voice and data capabilities specifically designed for mobile devices," says Simon Ellis, Intel's mobile communications marketing manager.

The Bluetooth SIG published the technical specification in July. Founders are Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba.

"We need to invest a lot of time in the qualification program that makes sure devices work together," Ellis says.

To manage the testing and certification process for the 1200 vendors interested in Bluetooth devices, Bluetooth SIG founders will host the Bluetooth developers' conference in Los Angeles next week. There, device makers will begin interoperability tests to qualify for the Bluetooth specification.

Regulating a standard

Bluetooth enables wireless communications for up to eight devices at a rate of 1MB per second and a range of up to 10 metres. But that range can grow to 100 metres by increasing the transmission power.

For now, Bluetooth development focuses on replacing the cables and connectors we use to synchronise today's disparate handheld devices.

"Over time, when there's an installed base out there, other applications will arise, like Internet access," Ellis says. Stretching Bluetooth's range to 100 metres will be more useful, because a mobile PC or device can maintain a link to an Internet access point.

Unlike the spec espoused by the Infrared Data Association, which has no security, Bluetooth uses 128-bit encryption, he notes. Bluetooth also supplies authentication, so a device identifies itself before transmitting information.

But Bluetooth won't necessarily replace IrDA, which is more appropriate for direct connections such as business card exchanges and can transfer larger files, Ellis says.

Other wireless technologies, like the Wireless Application Protocol, may prove complimentary to Bluetooth.

"A WAP phone might use a Bluetooth link to connect to a PC," Ellis suggests.

Getting things talking

Interoperability testing is crucial to Bluetooth's reliability. Some vendors have announced Bluetooth devices and radio chips, but are waiting for the tests before shipping.

"The first things to roll out will be simple devices like headsets because it's easy to test a sound channel," Ellis says. For example, Ericsson recently announced a Bluetooth wireless headset for use with its mobile phones.

PCs with Internet access are more complex and much harder to test, so it will probably be mid-2000 before Bluetooth PCs appear, he says.

As a new member of the Bluetooth promoter group, Microsoft adds much-needed development on the software side.

Building Bluetooth into Windows may propel better synchronisation, both between its Windows CE and PC Windows, and between Windows and other vendors' platforms.

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Cameron Crouch

PC World

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