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Biting into Bluetooth

A look at Bluetooth technology.

With Bluetooth in the news, we take a look at the some of the history of the technology and where it is expected to go. How much of a blow will the recent security alert be to Bluetooth's reputation? Author Ron Schneiderman takes a look at Bluetooth in this article from InformIT.

The business and technical press coverage of Bluetooth has been constant and often brutal. And for the most part, rightfully so. "Are we getting ahead of ourselves -- again?" wrote a technology magazine editor in his monthly column. "It's got momentum, it's got mass, and it's got great PR." Then there were headlines like, "Bluetooth riddled with cavities" and "Bluetooth still teething." A more to the point headline would have been, "Bluetooth vendors bite off more than they can chew."

Bluetooth was designed to enable spontaneous connectivity between cellular phones, mobile computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other wireless devices.

Initially conceived as a wireless replacement for cable hookups for portable consumer electronic products, Bluetooth has become a digital transmission standard for short-range links between laptop computers, cellular phones, PDAs, and other electronic devices. But there is an important difference from other wireless networks: It offers what the Bluetooth community calls "unconscious" or "hidden" computing. Bluetooth-enabled products will be designed to automatically seek each other out and configure themselves into piconetworks, which can, among other things, forward e-mail received on a cellular phone in a person's pocket to the notebook computer or laptop in a nearby briefcase. Bluetooth can also exchange business cards with someone passed on the street or in a bar or restaurant if given permission to do so, "opening up whole new blind dating opportunities," according to a Merrill Lynch research report. It can download data from a digital camera to a PC or cellphone. Children sitting in the front of a school bus could play games with children sitting in the back of the same bus. In fixed applications, it can replace hardwired connections with wireless Internet access points in airports, hotel lobbies, and conference centers. A Finnish telecom operator has even demonstrated a Bluetooth-enabled vending machine, allowing consumers to buy products out of the machine by transmitting an account code from a Bluetooth phone or PDA.

Why "Bluetooth?" Because someone at Ericsson suggested naming this new development after King Harald of Denmark, nicknamed Bluetooth, who is credited with uniting the warring factions of Denmark and Norway in the 10th century, when he reigned. Ericsson figured it could do the same with its Bluetooth -- unite wireless devices everywhere.

Bluetooth is supposed to be the "next big thing." But it has had some problems getting out of the chute, most of them technical. Ericsson began exploring short-range, low-power, low-cost wireless technologies in 1994. By 1998, Ericsson was convinced it had something important and that it was far enough along in its development to move forward, but it needed help to develop the technology into an open, global standard and to promote the concept. To pull this off, Ericsson teamed with four other heavyweights: IBM, Toshiba, Intel and Nokia. Together, they formed what became known as the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which eventually grew to more than 2,000 company members worldwide.

The hype has been huge, as have been the expectations. Market research organizations projected that more than a billion Bluetooth-enabled devices would be on the market by 2004. One of them, the Gartner Group, said it expected Bluetooth to become a "defining force" in portable electronic products. Merrill Lynch estimated that by 2005, Bluetooth would be in 95% of the world's cellular phones (that's more than a billion phones), 95% of wireless headsets (700 million), 90% of PCs (400 million), 50% of all of the printers sold that year (109 million), and 60% of digital cameras (64 million).

But there were problems. Virtually none of the earliest Bluetooth products tested worked as designed;they simply would not communicate. Testing was difficult because there were no instruments to measure many of Bluetooth's unique functions. It didn't help that the target price for Bluetooth integrated circuits (ICs), set somewhere in the early going at $5, a bit high for a consumer electronics device, didn't seem attainable on any scale until at least 2002, possibly later.

Bluetooth security was another issue, but it stayed in the background until two researchers at Lucent Technologies announced they had found flaws in the technology that could permit anyone to eavesdrop on a digital conversation or even to determine a user's identity. Although the Lucent researchers said the problem could be fixed fairly easily, the disclosure generated more negative press for Bluetooth, focusing mostly on the technology's use in high-traffic areas, such as airports and conference centers.

Click over to InformIT to read more about Bluetooth technology.

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