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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.
Here at Last
Despite a rocky start, Bluetooth devices have finally begun to trickle out-not a lot, but enough that you can actually get rid of a few cables here and there, which is the ultimate benefit of Bluetooth.
Hewlett-Packard's Deskjet 995c inkjet is one of the first printers with integrated Bluetooth, and Ericsson's R520 mobile phone is one of the first to ship with a built-in Bluetooth transceiver. But other high-end phones, like Motorola's new Timeport 270c, gain connectivity through simple add-ons. Similarly, TDK Systems' Blue5 clip-on adds Bluetooth to Palm V and Palm Vx handhelds, while its Bluetooth USB Adaptor lets a PC receive data from up to 150 feet.
Compaq, IBM and Toshiba are early adopters among notebook vendors. IBM's ThinkPad models accept Bluetooth UltraPort Modules, Compaq's Evo Notebook N600c includes a multipurpose port for either Bluetooth or 802.11b modules, and Toshiba puts both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi silicon on the motherboards of its Tecra 9000 and PortÃ¯Â¿Â½gÃ¯Â¿Â½ 4000 Series notebooks.
Actually, just about any portable with an available Type II PC Card slot can become Bluetooth-enabled with cards from early players like 3Com, Motorola or Xircom. A Bluetooth PC card synced fine on an older Tecra 8100 I used for a test bed. I simply added the card to a Type II slot, turned on the portable and installed the drivers. Upgrading the Motorola Timeport 270c cell phone was as easy as replacing the battery panel with a same-sized Bluetooth adaptor for a net gain of no weight or size.
The final step is to arrive at a secret handshake for your devices, so other devices can't access yours without your OK. You'll find a new Bluetooth Neighborhood icon on your Windows desktop, where you can set up a password.
After that, whenever you come back from a trade show or a business trip, you can sync new phone numbers, notes and other information in your phone with similar files on your desktop. It works the other way, too, when you're about to leave the office.
As with all new technologies, early Bluetooth products are expensive. But as volume ramps up, prices will fall. You also have to consider how much time you spend syncing data and how much your time is worth. If you do a lot of outbound work, Bluetooth might save you money. Besides, it's easy to use and, actually, kind of fun.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write him at email@example.com.
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