Mass use of Bluetooth for short-range wireless communication is years away. The technology's backers hyped Bluetooth and, back in reality, now predict that it will be eight years before Bluetooth is as commonly used as a mobile phone is today.
"We did overheat it a lot," said Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group Inc. (SIG), in an interview at the fourth annual Bluetooth Congress that ended here on Friday. The Bluetooth SIG trade association comprises hundreds of organizations working on Bluetooth products and applications.
"If you step back, it does take about a decade from the very first user products to mainstream use. I think we are in the second year of Bluetooth adoption," he said. "We realize now that what we are trying to do is a lot bigger than what we originally saw it to be."
Bluetooth was invented in 1994 as a cable replacement technology. It offers data transfer rates of about 400K bps (bits per second) and operates in the 2.4GHz frequency band, the same as many cordless telephones and 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN) technology. Vendors predicted that Bluetooth would be everywhere by now, but the number of devices with Bluetooth support remains limited and early adopters are the only ones using Bluetooth today.
It took five years from development of the specification to the first products and Bluetooth is "not even halfway" to reaching its goal, McCamon said. That goal is to be a pervasive technology that is used without users giving it any thought, like with infrared and the TV remote today.
"We are definitely still in the early adopting stage, where the gadget-loving person uses the technology," said McCamon.
Dave Bell, managing director of BlueUnplugged.com, an online store dedicated to Bluetooth products founded early last year, agreed.
"The use of Bluetooth is not widespread. There is still a lot of confusion. People don't know what Bluetooth is. In 18 months we will have much better products and user education," he said, adding that the bulk of Liverpool, England, BlueUnplugged.com's sales are to testers and "techies."
"Bluetooth is nowhere near as useable as it should be. We need to get rid of the word Bluetooth, the user does not need to know anything about the technology," said Nick Hunn, managing director of TDK Systems Europe Ltd. in London.
TDK has Bluetooth products on the market, but the company has put the brakes on Bluetooth hype. Vendors that painted futuristic pictures of what Bluetooth would enable users to do and said it would happen soon, "lied," said Hunn.
"User expectation was pushed too high too quickly," said Hunn, who believes that L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. and Intel Corp., Bluetooth promoters from the start, deliberately created a buzz around the technology to get broad industry support. And it worked, over two dozen chip makers offer Bluetooth chips.
Use of Bluetooth will rise slowly as vendors work out issues such as interoperability and usability, pundits say now.
"Today there is no guarantee that hardware from different manufactures, even using the same Bluetooth specification, will work together," said Per Forsberg, senior marketing manager at chip maker National Semiconductor Corp.
"We have to address the issues fast, otherwise people will loose faith in the technology," he said, adding that version 1.2 of the Bluetooth specification should be out in the first half of next year. That version also addresses an interference issue, whereby Bluetooth hardware could jam 802.11b WLAN traffic.
Although mass use of Bluetooth may be some years away, the number of devices incorporating Bluetooth will jump this year because the price of Bluetooth chips has dropped. Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB, Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc., for example, all plan to release several new phones that support Bluetooth before the end of this year, industry insiders said.
Most market watchers expect mobile telephony to drive Bluetooth adoption because of the large number of phones sold each year. But having Bluetooth in a phone does not mean it will be used. Sony Ericsson's T68i handset, for example, is popular in Europe today not because of Bluetooth, but because it has a color screen.
That's where Stuttgart, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler AG says it comes in. The car maker plans to start offering a Bluetooth hands-free kit called U-Connect as a dealer-installed option on its vehicles in the fourth quarter of this year.
"In-vehicle, hands-free communications is the dominant application that will determine the long term success or failure of Bluetooth," said Jack Withrow, director of vehicle entertainment and communication for DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group.
U-Connect allows users to bring their Bluetooth-enabled phone into their car and make hands-free phone calls. Controls and a microphone are located in the car's rearview mirror. Other Bluetooth applications have too limited of a market in the near term and face competition from other wireless standards, according to Withrow.
That's wrong, said Kyle Martin, senior director of sales for Silicon Wave Inc., a San Diego-based Bluetooth silicon vendor. Martin believes software giant Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Washington, holds the key to mass Bluetooth adoption.
"When Microsoft releases Windows with Bluetooth support, it will open the floodgates to a host of Bluetooth applications," he said, adding that some notebook PC makers, including market leader Toshiba Corp., as well as certain Taiwanese PC motherboard makers already incorporate Bluetooth. Intel demonstrated Bluetooth on one of its motherboards in November last year.
Microsoft last month released Bluetooth software for developers and at the Bluetooth Congress here demonstrated its Bluetooth wireless mouse and keyboard. Bluetooth support for Windows XP is planned for later this year. [See "XP to get Bluetooth support next year," Dec. 12, 2001 and "Microsoft shows Bluetooth hub, keyboard and mouse," April 18.]Meanwhile, FedEx Corp. of Memphis, Tennessee, will be among the first to use Bluetooth in a business environment. A new handheld device that uses Bluetooth will be issued to the couriers later this year or early next year, said Ken Pasley, director of mobile architecture development at FedEx.
FedEx couriers currently use infrared to transfer information, such as package scan data, from their handheld device to a terminal in their van. Infrared requires the device to be aligned with the terminal. With Bluetooth the transfer would automatically happen when the courier is in the proximity of the van, Pasley said.
FedEx also has plans to install Bluetooth access points in many of its locations The Bluetooth network would exist next to the 802.11b WLAN network that FedEx is already installing. WLAN is good for users with notebook computers and high bandwidth needs, while the power-efficient Bluetooth is good for users of battery-run mobile devices, Pasley said.
Analysts see a strong Bluetooth market with the number of Bluetooth chipsets shipped surging from 10.4 million units in 2001 to 690 million units in 2006, a five-year 132 percent compound annual growth rate. Bluetooth-enabled equipment will climb to 644 million units over the same period, according to research firm In-Stat/MDR in a report published last month.