Tag Archives: Charles Dow

Column: Bluetooth primer

Loose Wire — Wireless With Strings
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 August 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
 By now you’ve probably heard of Bluetooth technology, but chances are you’re not quite sure what all the fuss is about. I don’t blame you. If its name — better suited to a dentist specializing in unhappy teeth — isn’t enough to put you off, then you might be forgiven for wondering, “Just how is this going to improve the quality of my life?” I’m not about to suggest you go Bluetooth-crazy, but I reckon it’s worth getting a handle on because one day Bluetooth will make linking your PC, gadgets and telephones a lot easier.
 
First, let’s get the name out of the way: Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald. Through his impressive communication skills — no one is too specific about this, but I suspect that as a Viking they didn’t involve throwing baby showers and Tupperware parties — King Bluetooth united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century. Hence Bluetooth is a wireless standard that allows users to unite through communication. Get it? Gadgets with no fuss. Or cables. In short, one gadget with Bluetooth built in — say your handphone — should link up automatically with another gadget — say your laptop — without you doing much more than putting them in the same room.
 
This works using the same free part of the radio spectrum that WiFi, or 802.11, wireless devices use. But while WiFi connects devices over longer distances, Bluetooth gadgets only hook up within a 10-metre range. Where WiFi evangelists dream of large networks without wires, Bluetoothers dream of little informal clusters of computers, printers, personal digital assistants, handphones, headsets, cameras, floppy drives and CD-ROMs all connected wirelessly. Unlike infrared they don’t need to be pointed at each other, and they’ll also work through a door or wall.
 
It’s a great idea, so why isn’t it happening yet? Well, when Bluetooth first appeared in 1998-99 the hype raised expectations to a silly level, particularly since there was only a handful of products with Bluetooth built in. But three years on, there are still problems: There are now dozens of Bluetooth products, and more in the pipeline, but Bluetooth chips are still too expensive, meaning that few of these gadgets cost less than $100. That’s too pricey for most people.
 
Part of the problem, I’m sorry to say, is Microsoft. The latest incarnation of their Windows software, XP, doesn’t have Bluetooth capability. If you set up your PDA within sight of your laptop, chances are you’d hear a funny buzzing sound and the two would try to set up an infrared link to each other. If you plug a peripheral — say your new printer — into your computer the PC would recognize the printer and probably install the drivers for you so you can get printing. The same goes for most WiFi cards. Not with Bluetooth.
 
The result is that it’s easy to set up a Bluetooth Ericsson handphone, say with an Ericsson headset — just turn them both on, fiddle in the phone menu and hey presto. Try the same with the phone and a Bluetooth-enabled PC and you’re asking for trouble. Manufacturers get around the lack of Windows support by building their own software, but it’s a bit like asking your plumber to redesign the living room: Everything looks a bit odd and nothing seems to work properly. Gadgets come tantalizingly close to hooking up with each other but then fail to do what they promise.
 
Having said that, there are occasional glimpses of its potential. AmazingTech’s Bluegear offers a low-cost ($125) way to hook up two or more computers to share files and an Internet connection, via charming little blue pegs, or dongles, that fit into the USB ports most computers come with nowadays. Anycom, which focuses exclusively on Bluetooth, has some nice gadgets, including a wireless-printer module which slots into your printer’s parallel-port slot. Now, in theory, any Bluetooth device can print out stuff from across the room, cable-free. After much tweaking and a little outside help I was able to get all these to work, and had that heady sensation one sometimes gets from good technology. I had to sit down.
 
But all this is still too fiddly for prime time. And just because two gadgets are called Bluetooth doesn’t mean they’ll set up house together. Bluegear’s dongles won’t yet talk to other gadgets, though AmazingTech say something is in the pipeline. Ericsson’s T68i phone worked like a dream with the Ericsson CommuniCam MCA-10 camera and an Ericsson headset, but won’t talk to a TDK dongle or the Anycom Bluetooth Compact Flash card.
 
This is not what Bluetooth is supposed to be about. So while some pundits say Bluetooth has arrived, I’d suggest some caveats: Buy with care, don’t expect too much, and be ready for a bit of pain. The future may have fewer wires, but there are still plenty of strings attached.

Column: Deep Purpled

Loose Wire — And Now, I Show My Age

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 16 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I was drinking beer backstage with the guys from Deep Purple the other day (I’ve always wanted to be able to say that) when I got to thinking: Technology has transformed pop music in the past 20 years, and at the same time, nothing’s changed at all.
 
Admittedly, this thought followed two and a half hours of Black Night, Woman from Tokyo and Smoke on the Water (anthems that were injected straight into the drinking water at my school: If you didn’t know the lyrics of Child in Time you ran the risk of being beaten up or, worse, forced to listen to the whole 10-minute song), so I might have been hallucinating. But when you see guys — three of them in their mid-50s — adopting poses unchanged since 1972, you’d be forgiven for thinking that popular music is a static beast: Guys with long hair in uncomfortably tight clothing jump around stage wielding electric guitars; audience goes crazy, waves arms with lighters aloft, burns fingers, goes home happy.
 
But beneath all this there’s been a seismic shift in how music is composed, played, recorded and performed. Nowadays you’re just as likely to attend a concert by a disc jockey, a hybrid DJ-musician or just a guy with a couple of laptops and a mixer. And you’ll hear people talking about the rise of interactive music, where nonmusicians in the audience are just as likely to contribute as the artists themselves. Music, we are told, has been liberated from its traditional paddocks of proficiency and performance. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but almost.
 
Since the demise of my incredibly talented — but contract-deficient — 1980s band, Puzzled But Dancing, I’ve dabbled with synthesizers and home recording. My first synth, as we pros call them, was about the size of a laptop. Instead of keys, the Wasp — made by now-defunct British company Electronic Dream Plant — had a two-octave pad. It was so sensitive that with the slightest condensation it would spew random notes that would make Deep Purple’s Jon Lord proud, but which were somewhat embarrassing during a gig. Such analogue beasts are museum pieces now: You can emulate them on your computer with programs called softsynths. Reason by Sweden’s Propellerhead Software (www.propellerheads.se) mimics a whole studio in real time. At $400 it sounds steep until you realize you’d spend that much on one piece of real equipment.
 
Composing has changed a lot, too. I could afford only a four-track recorder and spent hours trying to cram tracks together without them sounding as if they’d been recorded through rugs. The advent of a standard called MIDI allowed us to link keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines and store music as data, in the same way word-processing software lets you fiddle with a document.
 
This wasn’t easy: Ten years ago I was still messing around with a piece of DOS software called Cakewalk trying to harness my growing synth collection, but I spent more time trying to get the machines to talk to each other than actually making music. (With hindsight this might have been a blessing.
 
Still, once instruments could be hooked up to computers, music was quick to break out of its elitist confines. With software anyone could create music out of anything, without training or expensive gear. More than 900,000 people now use Cakewalk daily. In an interview in the May issue of Wired magazine, British composer Matthew Herbert describes how all the sounds in his song Starbucks come from doing everything to a frappucino and caramel latte except drinking them (www.magicandaccident.com/_MoD//mp3/Starbucks.mp3).
 
Purists, no doubt, will groan. But there’s room for everybody. Deep Purple will be around for aeons to come, though the line-up will probably change, as older members are replaced by their grandchildren or robots, but elsewhere technology will pioneer new forms of creativity we can only guess at. If someone who thinks a semibreve is a fancy name for a thong can make sounds from a laptop that entertain us, and make us dance, then who’s complaining? The only constant will be that anyone who picks up a guitar for the first time will still try to play Smoke on the Water. Which is probably no bad thing, since I know the words.