Judging from the number of blinking lights I see hanging from people's ears these days, Bluetooth must be a roaring success. Indeed, ignoring specific applications for the moment, more than one billion Bluetooth-equipped devices have been shipped to date, and the next billion are going to be out there pretty quickly – probably within a year or two. With numbers like those, Bluetooth is an unqualified success.
Or is it? In surveys we've done, a somewhat different picture appears. Yes, it's hard to find a cell phone that doesn't have Bluetooth built in, and it's easy to get a Bluetooth USB dongle for your PC. Some notebooks even come equipped with Bluetooth. But we've found that the vast majority of owners of Bluetooth-equipped phones never in fact use Bluetooth, and, of those who do, only about 2% use it for anything other than a headset application.
This is a little surprising. I can understand the lack of awareness of Bluetooth's capabilities. Cellular phone dealers seldom discuss functionality beyond headsets, and Bluetooth isn't easy for non-techies to understand (or, often, use) anyway. But I would have expected that Bluetooth culture -- even with the early marketing overhype that turned off users and analysts alike -- would by now have progressed further.
I must confess that I have never been a big fan of Bluetooth, but by this I mean only the radio and not the very interesting software functionality that's part of the spec. Many people don't know that Bluetooth is in fact an entire network protocol stack, as well as a large number of applications. And, if we put the current radio aside for the moment, Bluetooth can be very, very useful indeed. Why dismiss the radio? Because Bluetooth is defined with performance of up to 3 Mbps only – no longer an interesting number in the era of 54 Mbps Wi-Fi and 480 Mbps ultra-wideband (UWB).
But therein lies the good news – Bluetooth protocols, called Profiles, have in fact been ported to UWB, and I think Bluetooth protocols could eventually be seen across IP-based networks running on all manner of both wired and wireless physical layers. A good description of Bluetooth Profiles can be found at http://www.bluetooth.com/Bluetooth/Learn/Works/Profiles_Overview.htm. As you can see, there's a lot more to Bluetooth than headsets. I think that Bluetooth has been held back in terms of broader use by the very limited nature of the radio, not by its real capabilities. Still, because of the large installed base of Bluetooth devices today, most notably all of those headsets, the current Bluetooth radio is likely to be around for some time. Contrary to my original prognostications of eight years ago on this subject, we may even see expanded use of the current radio in a number of applications. For example, I'm using a Bluetooth keyboard with my shiny new Motorola Q and that same keyboard with my Nokia 770. That kind of convenience and flexibility are really what wireless is all about, after all.
It is my hope, though, that the Bluetooth protocols will proliferate across essentially all networks and become common in enterprise and consumer applications alike. That's the marketing challenge currently in front of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the trade association that controls the specification. I'm very encouraged by the recent marketing activities of the SIG, and Bluetooth -- at least the protocols -- most likely has a long and happy life ahead of it.
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.