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Bluetooth: The road to a bright future

In this tip, Craig Mathias admits that he once wrote a column titled Bluetooth is dead thinking that Bluetooth was oversold and wasn't seeing much use in the enterprise. Today, Mathias welcomes Bluetooth back, sort of.

About two years ago, I wrote a column in another publication with the subtle title of "Bluetooth is dead." OK, I got a lot of email about that one. My thesis was that Bluetooth had been oversold, lacked performance and wasn't -- beyond headsets -- seeing much use. I did allow for the possibility of a resurrection of sorts, and that's now happening. So, let me be the first to welcome BT back into the land of the living. Sort of.

But let's begin at the beginning. Bluetooth is part of the vernacular of wireless. It's essentially ubiquitous in all but entry-level cell phones and is very popular as a vehicle for cordless headsets. A number of cars with built-in Bluetooth for hands-free phone operation while driving (caution: I still think people should not talk on the phone and drive at the same time, hands-free or not) are on the road, and some people (albeit a very small percentage of Bluetooth users) are taking advantage of the many other capabilities of Bluetooth (see http://www.bluetooth.com/Bluetooth/Learn/Technology/Specifications/ for a list).

And I mention this here because Bluetooth is far more than a radio. The Bluetooth radio itself is capable of 1 to 2 Mbps, depending upon which version of Bluetooth we're talking about. But the real beauty of Bluetooth is in the rich set of capabilities and applications defined at higher levels of the Bluetooth protocol stack. These are called profiles and, among many others, include such functions as file transfer, printing, faxing and service discovery.

My initial reason for declaring Bluetooth dead was primarily my belief that the BT radio itself was simply too slow for modern applications. I often remarked that if one wished to use Bluetooth to synchronize one's notebook and desktop while preparing to head to the airport, then one would miss one's flight. In a world of gigabit Ethernet and 50-100 Mbps WLANs, who needs Bluetooth (beyond the wireless headset application, anyway)? My guess was that the radio would need to be replaced by something faster, and the closed nature of the Bluetooth applications stack would limit its value elsewhere.

Which is a shame, because I'd like to see the Bluetooth applications on everything. Imagine being able to fax over the Internet (or, for that matter, a Wi-Fi connection), print anywhere, copy files between dissimilar devices, and more, in each case using a common set of applications that would work on any network. Well, such is beginning to happen, with the first step being that the Bluetooth Special Interest Group and the WiMedia Alliance have worked out a spec for Bluetooth applications to run over ultra-wideband (UWB) radio. Newer UWB implementations are capable of 480 Mbps, so my concerns about throughput quite literally go away. But 480 Mbps is the magic number for USB, and wireless USB is indeed now appearing. This leads to the question of whether Bluetooth or wireless USB will be the survivor.

But I think we're talking apples and oranges here. Bluetooth is a set of applications. USB is a personal-area interconnect. They should get along just fine, and that's what I think will happen. Make no mistake, the Bluetooth guys still have a lot of marketing mistakes to recover from, but they can do it if they want, and I'm personally cheering for them. Part of Bluetooth may indeed be dead, but the part that lives is worth saving.

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 craig@farpointgroup.com.

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