Bluetooth debuts in bits and pieces

While industry pundits agree that the wireless technology will take time to reach full swing, PC makers, mobile phone manufacturers and peripheral specialists seem ready to speed the wireless push.

The companies agree that the initial wave of products will be costly and focused on the high-end user. Nonetheless, the technology bears the promise of removing wires from the workspace and that seems reason enough to let users begin using radio frequency to connect up their favourite devices.

Bluetooth is a standard for short-distance wireless communications. It allows devices to be connected at speeds up to 1Mbps and distances of up to 10 metres. Announced in 1998, Bluetooth technology uses a small radio chip to replace cable connections in many devices, including laptops, headphones, and printers.

For example, a Bluetooth-enabled laptop computer could send pages wirelessly to a properly equipped printer. A Bluetooth connection could also replace the cabling now used when a handheld device connects to a PC. But while the promise of the technology is great, the reality has been pretty empty: Two years after the first announcements, Bluetooth-enabled products are sparse.

So far, PC makers have taken pole position in the Bluetooth race with announcements of a PC card that fits into the CompactFlash slot of their high-end notebooks. Toshiba and IBM will apparently lead the way with the first versions of the PC card available in late September for Toshiba and October for IBM. Ron Sperano, program director of mobile market development at IBM, said Big Blue's version of the card will cost around $US189 and will be available for the ThinkPad T and A series of notebooks.

Sperano warned that integrated Bluetooth chips will not appear in notebooks until some time next year. Like many other vendors, he said IBM will wait until more applications appear for Bluetooth, thereby pushing the chip price down, before the technology begins showing in a slew of devices. Sperano did say, however, that Bluetooth will pop up in PDAs (personal digital assistants) possibly by the middle of next year.

HP matched IBM's and Toshiba's PC card offering when the company announced it had worked with 3Com to design the card so it would fit in HP's OmniBook and Pavillion line of notebooks. HP will lag a bit on delivery time but looks to beat IBM's price. The company said it will start shipping the card November 1 at a cost around $US149. Like the competitors' product, the card can help users synchronise data between notebooks and also make connections between peripherals and telecommunications devices that are Bluetooth-ready.

HP said Bluetooth-enabled printers may start appearing before the middle of next year. In the meantime, the company will release an external printer attachment before year-end that should allow communication with PCs.

Dell Computer and Compaq Computer rejected the first-to-market rush and have not made any official statement on the availability of a Bluetooth card. "We focus on selling relevant technology to our customers," a Dell spokesman said about his company's lack of immediate interest in Bluetooth. Dell looks likely to post some news related to the technology by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2001.

Compaq will take a unique approach to the Bluetooth task at hand. The vendor said it won't showcase a PC card this year but will instead provide select clients with a Bluetooth evaluation kit. Ray Toves, manager of technology planning for commercial portables at Compaq, said the kit will be a way for clients to test the compatibility of PDAs, printers, notebooks and even mobile phones. Clients will report back on how well the devices synchronised, transferred files and handled dial-up networking. Look for the PC powerhouse to make more Bluetooth announcements in the first half of next year.

Quanta Computer Inc. -- one of the world's largest notebook manufacturers -- said it will begin producing four Bluetooth-ready products by the fourth quarter. The Taiwan-based company will offer a Bluetooth-capable cell phone, a PC card, a notebook with a built-in Bluetooth chipset, and a PCI card for desktops.

Steven Chen, a desktop group specialist at Quanta, said that the company's OEM (original equipment manufacturer) clients including Dell, HP and Compaq plan to sell both the PC card and built-in chipset. Quanta will roll out 50,000 of the cards in the fourth quarter. While he wouldn't specify names, Chen said that the top five mobile phone makers would look to use the Quanta phone.

Also on the Taiwan front, Acer will make a Bluetooth USB dongle for notebooks and desktops, a PC card, and embedded module for notebooks as well. The PC card and USB dongle should ship in December at around $US99.

Turning to Bluetooth and handheld, Palm is playing its Bluetooth plans very close to its chest saying that it won't release details on the availability or pricing of products until some unspecified time in the future. The company did demonstrate Bluetooth wireless connectivity between a Palm device, a laptop and a mobile phone at the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany in February of this year.

Microsoft seems to have made more headway with Bluetooth than Palm, offering a first-generation plug-in card for its Pocket PC handheld device. Mike Foley, a wireless architect at Microsoft, said developers can currently use the device, but added that end-users shouldn't expect to get their hands on the Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC until the first quarter or first half of next year.

Socket Communications makes some of the Bluetooth technology for Microsoft and said it will release a new Bluetooth evaluation kit this week. "This is one generation ahead of what Microsoft has had," a Socket spokesman said about the kit. He added that enough software will come with the kit "for developers to start playing with the Bluetooth card."

Compaq also made its way to the handheld side of things. Gregory Huh, product manager of the Internet appliance group at Compaq, said his company will add Bluetooth functions to the vendor's Pocket PC-based product by early next year.

While PC makers and handheld manufacturers have shown interest in Bluetooth, a number of industry experts say that mobile phone producers will drive the adoption of the technology.

Lars Nilsson, manager of strategic marketing at Ericsson, said his company currently makes a Bluetooth-enabled wireless headset. The headset can help commuters chat with ease on their mobile phones while motoring home. Users in Europe already have limited access to the unit.

Ericsson will also showcase a mobile phone in the first quarter of next year with a built-in Bluetooth modem. "We view it as cornerstone technology," Nilsson said of Bluetooth.

Motorola has announced agreements with IBM and Toshiba on several Bluetooth initiatives and said it will have a Bluetooth cell phone by sometime this year. The company thinks the heavy cost of Bluetooth technology will lower over a relatively short time and hopes to dabble in an number of areas with the wireless technology.

Linda Billhymer, director of marketing at Motorola, said the vendor is working with several car makers to get Bluetooth into cars. In the middle of next year, she expects that embedded technology will arrive making it much easier to use a cell phone while driving. The vendor will also have its own Bluetooth chipset out by next year.

Motorola also said Wednesday that it will release the first two products certified by the Bluetooth standards body to bear the Bluetooth trademark. The vendor will make two PC add-ons -- a PCMCIA card and a USB accessory -- available to consumers by the fourth quarter of this year.

Nokia is keeping customers in the dark with only a few words to say about Bluetooth. Pekka Isosonmppi, communications manager for Nokia Mobile, said, "We don't have any Bluetooth products out yet and we do not preannounce any products. What I can tell you is that we will release our first Bluetooth product by the end of the year."

Clearly, vendors with a variety of concerns have all shown interest in Bluetooth and a desire to push the technology forward. Industry observers say the day will soon arrive when a user simply walks into his or her office and without touching a key has all of their devices automatically synchronised and connected. With chip prices still high and applications only now starting to trickle out, the same experts say it will be two years at the earliest before Bluetooth reaches mass markets. Until then, expect to see a few high-end users going the Bluetooth route, but don't expect to see those users connecting to a multitude of devices.

Stephen Lawson and Laura Rohde contributed to this story.

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