Column: Bluetooth primer

By | July 24, 2002
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.

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