Opinion: Bluetooth experience still needs tinkering

This year saw the long-awaited appearance of Bluetooth products, including access points, printer adapters, PC cards and hands-free wireless headsets. We even saw some Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, which is what everyone says will be the catalyst for Bluetooth’s "explosion."

Although we haven't tested every Bluetooth product, those we have tested left us unimpressed.

Some stuff work as advertised, others left us scratching our heads (and worse, we've wanted to throw some equipment at the wall).

If you can imagine it, Bluetooth is even harder to install than IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN equipment. That's saying a lot, considering how wireless LAN products get constantly hammered for its user-unfriendliness. From what we've seen, Bluetooth is a lot worse.

There's no such thing as plug and play in Bluetooth. It's usually plug, configure, pray and then, maybe, play.

Devices that do only one thing (such as printer adapters and headsets) fare better than more complex devices (such as access points and PDAs with integrated Bluetooth). While the technology may be simple to understand, it's clear that many vendors have forgotten to make configuration software that is user friendly. That's not surprising considering the technology industry's track record -- hardware is easy, software is hard.

Here's an example: We tested a Bluetooth access point that promised to provide Internet access to Bluetooth-connected devices. Setting up an access point should be as easy as plugging in an Ethernet cable to the access point, letting our DHCP server assign it an IP address, and then use our Web browser to configure the access point through this IP address. After configuration, our Bluetooth devices should be able to get the Internet access. (That may sound hard to you, but it really is quite simple).

However, after this particular access point received the IP address and after we configured it, the access point kept asking our Bluetooth devices for a pass code. We tried all of the pass codes that the vendor suggested (there were three default ones), yet were still denied access (this happened through two different devices). We went back to the configuration software, discovered the section that listed the default pass codes, and even tried to enter a new pass code for the access point to recognize. It still didn't work. The vendor's documentation was no help -- the documentation was one photocopied piece of paper. A second Bluetooth access point we tried out at least gave us connectivity, but had some issues trying to connect to one of our two Bluetooth devices.

All is not lost though as we received more favorable experiences with products that focus on one thing. For example, we think Jabra's FreeSpeak Bluetooth Wireless headset did an outstanding job of "cutting the cord" between a hands-free headset and a mobile phone. Our Bluetooth-enabled phone and the Jabra headset connected quickly and painlessly, and we had no further configuration issues. That's what Bluetooth was supposed to do, and in this case it worked.

Maybe Bluetooth is/was too ambitious -- what started out as cable replacement morphed into a connectivity situation that is more nightmarish for end users than was intended. With the majority of products being pitched as an end user solution, it's clear that work needs to be done to simplify the software and configuration side before we feel better. And that could be a difficult pill for vendors to swallow.

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Keith Shaw

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