True Blue

New products prove Bluetooth wasn't a figment of the tech industry's imagination.

A funny thing happened to Bluetooth on its way to becoming the world's most-used short-range wireless communications standard. Wi-Fi got there first-to the 2.4GHz radio band, and then to the public share of mind.

The much-hyped Bluetooth protocol ran into a couple of last-minute design problems, a little ol' high-tech recession and concerns about conflicts with its fellow inhabitant of the 2.4GHz band. Analysts have scaled back Bluetooth shipment projections by almost a third.

Meanwhile, products using the Wi-Fi (802.11b) networking protocol have been sprouting like weeds, leading some to suggest that maybe Bluetooth isn't needed after all. Microsoft and Intel-two of nine core Bluetooth underwriters-have waffled in their support of Bluetooth, while going full-bore on Wi-Fi. Will Wi-Fi's success crowd out Bluetooth?

"The short answer is no," says Steve Andler, vice president of marketing for Toshiba's Computer Systems Group, which ships portables with both protocols. "Each has its own unique role."

The Wi-Fi protocol was always intended for fast, high-volume network traffic; Bluetooth for quick syncing and transfer of data between your PC and small devices-the key word being "small." That could be a cell phone, a PDA, a wireless earpiece for your phone or a car radio. Andler looks forward to the day when Bluetooth will be the protocol for your TV remote, garage door opener, even the key chain fob that unlocks your car door.

Wi-Fi's silicon size, cost and power requirements make it less economical to deploy in devices as small as phones and PDAs, not to mention key chain fobs. Those are precisely the kinds of things for which the short-range, low-power Bluetooth was designed.

The two protocols even work together, as Bluetooth marketers like Toshiba and Symbol Technologies have found ways to solve transmission conflicts. For example, Symbol programming lets UPS package scanners read bar codes using rings on their fingers. The data is then sent to Bluetooth transceivers on their belts and on to Symbol Spectrum 24 Wi-Fi Access Points and the main UPS server network. You can't get much cozier than that.

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This article was originally published in the December 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: True Blue.

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