3:43 pm
Tue May 18, 2004

Bluetooth

The best new gadget you may not have heard of.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

There are all kinds of standards. There's the standard model and standard procedures and the Gold standard and standard of living and, of course, "well, I have my standards."

In this Postcard from the Digital Age, we're going to talk about a technological standard with the intriguing name of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is probably the coolest and most potentially helpful technology you've never heard of. That might seem strange, since seems like it's made to order for our gadget-and-gear-filled world.

Our homes are flooded with technology. There are TVs and DVDs and game playing devices. There are wireless phones and computers and PDAs, not to mention smart washers and driers and stoves and refrigerators. Even cars are getting smarter.

But, let's back up for a minute. What, exactly is Bluetooth and what will it do for you?

Bluetooth technology will let you connect different wireless devices in the same room. For example, you might connect your wireless phone and PC so you could send the PC commands from across the room, or connect your PC and entertainment center so you can use your PC to select which CDs to play.

This could be a great thing. If nothing else, it would eliminate a lot of those cables and the tripping hazard they represent.

There's a catch, though. Both devices have to be Bluetooth enabled for the connection to work.

In Europe, Bluetooth is big stuff. It's a large and growing market there. It's becoming more popular quickly in Asia, too.

But in the US things are different. The only folks here who seem to know about Bluetooth are techies and the people who love them.

What's the problem? Actually, there are three problems.

Problem number one is that people who have developed Bluetooth haven't done a real good job of telling the rest of us what it is and why we might want it. The Bluetooth promotional material seems to be written by engineers and propeller heads, for engineers and propeller heads. Consider the following.

"Bluetooth can reliably provide a one megabit per second data rate for both voice and data, even in a noisy, high-density radio environment. Bluetooth is also good for zero-latency applications." Yep, makes perfect sense to me.

Fortunately, more non-techie communicators are getting involved in telling the Bluetooth story and that should mean that the story will get easier to understand.

Another problem is that there are some things about Bluetooth that have to work better before any kind of mass adoption is possible. As of today you can't just buy a Bluetooth enabled device, fire it up and have it work with other Bluetooth devices, without a lot of frustrating setup work.

That's on the way to being solved, too. Sony has announced that its own Bluetooth products will work together automatically. It says it can provide "instant connection, one step, one second." Other manufacturers won't be far behind.

The final problem is that some of big companies in the US market haven't caught Bluetooth fever. In Europe and Asia, wireless phone companies have driven Bluetooth adoption. But, in the US Verizon, Sprint PCS, and Motorola have, so far, refused to put the technology in their phones.

That may change, though in a strange way. In the US, automobiles may turn out to be the big drivers of Bluetooth adoption. Some BMWs and Toyotas already offer Bluetooth as an option for hands-free phone operation and operation of the sunroof and CD changer.

What's likely to happen is this. Folks who have spent many thousand dollars on a car with an extra Bluetooth option may not be thrilled to find out that their wireless phone won't work with the option.

They're not likely to send their car back to the dealership. Instead, they're likely to set about switching phone service or buying a phone that have the Bluetooth chip.

In the next year you're going to hear more about Bluetooth as the technology gets better known, easier to use and more popular. That's a good thing for all of us. We have nothing to use but our cords.