Microsoft throws its weight behind Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a standard for short-distance wireless communications which connects devices at speeds of up to 1Mbps and maximum distances of 10 metres.

Wireless PANs (personal area networks) is where Microsoft "feels that Bluetooth is a great technology," said Mike Foley, a wireless architect at Microsoft, at a Wednesday panel discussion here titled "Wire or Wireless."

According to Foley, Microsoft will have Bluetooth embedded in the "full release" of the company's next-generation Windows operating system, currently codenamed "Whistler," as well as future releases of Windows 2000.

Whistler is Microsoft's latest attempt to further its .Net initiative and design operating systems that are more tightly integrated with both the Internet and the devices that connect to it. Microsoft is planning to release Whistler on the desktop in the second half of 2001 with server releases following soon after, Foley said. "Microsoft will support the Bluetooth specification 1.1 which is expected in December [this year] or January of next year and there will be specification-compliant devices soon after," Foley said.

The Bluetooth technology, first announced by Ericsson in 1998 as a way to cut the cords between its mobile telephone handsets and headsets, uses a small radio chip to replace cable connections in many devices, including laptops, headphones, and printers. Though there was been considerable anticipation about Bluetooth-embedded products, some vendors already believe that the technology's time has passed.

"I think Bluetooth is late. They tried to commoditise the technology before it was even invented and now it's too late," Mike Lazaridis, president and co-chief executive officer of Research in Motion (RIM), said during a Tuesday Comdex panel discussion.

Speaking to PC World, Microsoft's Foley said that he understands why some may share Lazaridis' perspective on Bluetooth, but he believes the reports of Bluetooth's demise are premature. "I see too many people really working on it and too much development around it. I really don't think it's too late and that what Bluetooth can do is still compelling," Foley said.

According to Foley, users can expect to see a variety of Bluetooth products by the second quarter of 2001, including Microsoft's Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC.

"This may sound self-serving, but I think that Microsoft supporting Bluetooth within the operating system will do a lot to assure its place in the market," Foley said.

And as Bluetooth expands what it can do, the technology will become even more entrenched. For example, work is "already being done now" to assure that IP (Internet Protocol) will run over Bluetooth which should be ready by February 2001. "Microsoft believes that IP is the correct transport," Foley said.

The Microsoft executive said he doesn't believe that Bluetooth will replace the wireless LAN (local area network) industry standard, IEEE 802.11b, which supports transmission speeds of up to 11M bps. "Bluetooth is not a wireless LAN. There are better standards for wireless LANs," Foley said.

On the contrary, in the future, Bluetooth will work well with 802.11b, according to Foley, although both standards operate in the 2.4GHz frequency band which has been raising some fears of interference between Bluetooth and 802.11b. "Coexistence will get there but not in the first roll out of Bluetooth," Foley said.

Furthermore, Foley said Bluetooth will not lose out to HomeRF (radio frequency), the 1.6Mbps wireless LAN technology is also getting a lot of attention at Comdex.

Both Bluetooth and HomeRF are frequency-hopping technologies that are being touted as being particularly suited for streaming audio, voice and data over home networks, especially for home entertainment purposes. As with 802.11b, Foley sees coexistence between Bluetooth and HomeRF.

But with plans to ramp HomeRF to speed up to 10Mbps by next year, the technology may become more of a challenge to Bluetooth. "If Microsoft finds something easier, they will move to it. It's about speed and who gets embedded in products first. The one who gets to market first is going to win," said Jeffrey Sloman, the Tuesday panel discussion chairman and senior consultant with Data Communications Consulting.

"Bluetooth's strength is in its protocols. They've got to divorce the radio portion from its ability to do some very nice stuff but the Bluetooth Consortium has too many agendas. Then again, Microsoft is a powerful force and, right now, it looks like they are behind Bluetooth," Sloman said.

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