Bluetooth: Against All Odds
By Dan Briody, Fri Dec 06 09:00:00 GMT 2002

Introduced with great fanfare over 7 years ago, Bluetooth is overcoming its early struggles, and is ready to take its place in wireless history.

Long before it became the poster child for overhyped and underdelivered technologies, Bluetooth was the nickname of a tenth century Danish king, Harald I. This particular king was credited with uniting all of Denmark under Christianity, a coming together that was the result of years of evangelism. How ironic.

It has been nearly seven years now since the concept of Bluetooth wireless technology first dawned on the public's consciousness. And since that time, the technology and the companies that collectively promoted it have experienced nothing but infighting and technical snafus that have retarded Bluetooth's evolution, leading to a splintered market and stunted adoption. Not exactly the kind of unification that would have made King Bluetooth proud.

But for those of you who were as excited as I was when you heard that Bluetooth technology would eventually eliminate the need for the dozens of wires cluttering up your desktop, take heart. It would appear that the worst is over, and the future is considerably brighter.

Bluetooth's Black Eye

Word of the Bluetooth wireless technology spread like wildfire throughout the high-tech community when the press first caught wind of it back in the late 1990s. Originating in Ericsson's labs, the idea of Bluetooth was to create a short-range radio transmitter that was inexpensive enough to build into every device from mobile phones to handhelds to laptops. It would have a range of about 10 meters, and would allow people to enjoy cordless headsets for their phones, instant communication between peripheral devices, and the seamless exchange of data between an endless number of home electronics.

It was a very exciting time. With the power of Ericsson, Nokia, IBM, Intel, Toshiba and several other tech heavyweights behind it, Bluetooth was surely destined for success. They formed a consortium, called the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). It was the wireless industry's manifest destiny, and everyone was talking about it.

But the good times did not last. Bitter battles were fought behind the scenes between the members of the Bluetooth SIG. Every member it seemed had different plans for how the technology would be developed, implemented and used, and the result was explosive. "Any time that you put together a technology that is as broad as Bluetooth, it is natural that the companies will come in with a different set of requirements," explains Bill Clark, a wireless analyst with Gartner Group, a technology consultancy based in Connecticut. "There were too many cooks in the kitchen, and too many business issues that everyone was trying to grapple with."

That the SIG members could not agree on the direction of Bluetooth was only the beginning of the problems. Bluetooth fell prey to the classic hype cycle in which bloated expectations far outstrip the technology's ability to deliver. The chip sets, originally expected to cost $5, were too expensive to make. The real price for the silicon now sits at about $15 to $20, according to analysts at Ovum, a wireless research firm. At that price, device manufacturers are not eager to add Bluetooth to their products given the higher prices that will result. Prices are expected to reach the $5 price target over the next two years as volume manufacturing kicks in.

And then there is the fact that Bluetooth has been poorly marketed to the public. There has been no single consistent approach to evangelizing the technology, which has resulted in the widespread confusion we have today. "Many applications have been hyped for Bluetooth, some of them verging on the ridiculous," says one report from Ovum. "Our favorite example of an absurd application is the use of Bluetooth's proximity capabilities in a mobile phone to alert the user when a friend or colleague is within range so that the user can dial them up for a conversation. Given that the range is limited to ten meters, a slightly raised voice would seem more appropriate than a phone call."

Finally, enterprise users have serious misgivings about Bluetooth's security capabilities. Some content providers, Disney for one example, are not allowing their copyrighted materials to be downloaded to Bluetooth capable devices, for fear of easy dissemination to other devices. And enterprise IT managers are holding back on deploying Bluetooth in the workplace until they can have some kind of assurance their corporate information will be protected. Gartner's Clark says that the reason there is no standard level of security within the Bluetooth SIG is that all of the vendors wanted to have varying levels of security. For example, home television makers didn't want their customers to be required to enter a PIN number every time they used their remote. So the SIG left the security guidelines open-ended, a decision that may now be hampering adoption.

Overall, the process of bringing Bluetooth to market has been more challenging than anyone imagined, and the SIG is the first to admit it. "What we are trying to do has never been done," explains Mike McCamon, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG. "We are trying to get everyone in the PC, phone, computer, automotive and several other industries together under one tent. The culture's are different. The first mission of the SIG was to get the industry excited, and that is one of the things that the SIG has done quite well. We have helped people to understand that Bluetooth is a cable replacement technology that has a radius of ten meters. Mission accomplished."

Bluetooth, Meet the Customer

Thus far, Bluetooth has qualified for inclusion into exactly 822 different products, according to McCamon. Analysts estimate that there are 5.18 million total Bluetooth devices in circulation. Most of those products are cell phones in Europe. American, Asia, and the rest of the world has been painfully slow to adopt the technology. And even in Europe, McCamon admits that though folks are buying Bluetooth products, their not sure what to do with them. "We feel really disappointed at the numbers we are at," says McCamon. "I would say that the technology to date is that it is not being used as much as we would like to see it being used."

Carriers are getting anxious for the Bluetooth SIG to get their act together and start producing more Bluetooth enabled products. The benefits of Bluetooth are expected to become a major selling point. "We think that Bluetooth is something that is going to make the mobile experience even better, because while infrared is good you still have to point devices at each other, and Bluetooth eliminates that," says Ritch Blasi, a spokesperson for AT&T Wireless. "We see this starting to come of age next year as more of the phones that come packaged with Bluetooth start coming out."

Up to now, the Bluetooth SIG has focused mainly on the engineering challenges of developing and deploying a technology throughout dozens of industries with hundreds of different manufacturers. No small challenge. But now most of the technical glitches have been resolved, and the time has come to focus on making customers aware of the benefits of the technology. "What I have seen happen is that we are starting to see the mission change, says McCamon. "We are now trying to become the customer advocate."

By doing so, the Bluetooth SIG hopes to educate the public on the appropriate uses of the technology - as a cable replacement - and make a "check off" item for customers buying new devices, the way USB has become. And now Bluetooth is about to get some heavyweight help on its path to ubiquity: a little software company by the name of Microsoft.

A Big Boost

Though Microsoft has been a member of the Bluetooth SIG since the beginning, it wasn't until recently that the company threw its full weight behind the technology. In April of this year, Microsoft announced plans for big push behind Bluetooth, including Bluetooth mice and keyboards, a free Bluetooth download for Windows XP, and a Bluetooth software development kit.

Analysts agree that Microsoft's entry in earnest into the Bluetooth market will bring the interoperability the industry so desperately needs, albeit on Microsoft's terms. "The only way you are going to see widespread interoperability is with Microsoft leading the way," says Clark. "Microsoft's support will be a positive step for the Bluetooth community overall, enabling laptops, desktops, and PocketPC-based devices to exchage information more readily, as well as the obvious cost savings of replacing cables." After Microsoft gets done with the Bluetooth standard however, the other members of the SIG may wish they had found their own common ground sooner. Microsoft declined to comment on this story.

Gartner also claims that the hype cycle of Bluetooth has bottomed out, meaning that expectations have gone from unrealistically high to unrealistically low. That makes for an easier benchmark to clear. Despite the obvious difficulties Bluetooth has encountered along the way, it remains a viable and potentially groundbreaking technology. Ovum predicts that the number of Bluetooth enabled devices worldwide will skyrocket in the coming years, from just over 5 million today to 270 million in 2005.

The tale of Bluetooth is one that the tech industry as a whole can learn much from. Perhaps the most important lesson is that a great technology does not a success story make. It takes dedication and cooperation on the part of the major technology vendors involved to bring a new wireless technology to market. And expectations need to be set at a reasonable level early on, lest consumers feel the letdown that has become so common in the tech industry. Ultimately, the story of Bluetooth will likely be one of triumph over adversity. And that would make old King Harald proud.

After failing miserably at every attempt to become the next great American author, Dan Briody settled in San Francisco and started writing about the technology revolution in the mid-90s. Today he is the author of Red Herring's Wireless Watch column, and he is still trying to write the great American novel.