Bluetooth devices better today, but still expensive and rare

First published in Business in Vancouver October 9-15, 2001, ISSUE 624 The high-tech office column

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001


Two weeks ago, this column looked at wireless networking; increasingly popular and increasingly affordable, if saddled with the less than memorable moniker IEEE 802.11b.

But there's wireless and then there's wireless. Bluetooth wireless sports a better name, but is much less visible.

802.11b (aka WiFi) connects computers to the Internet and business or home networks, replacing the Ethernet cabling of a traditional local area network with radio waves.

Bluetooth aims to replace all sorts of other cables: cables connecting computers to printers, PDAs, digital cameras, cell phones and more. The Bluetooth vision entails a personal area network, constantly changing as users with different devices move in and out of its effective range.

Where 802.11b devices promise an office-wide range of 50 to 100 metres, Bluetooth devices aim for a range of 10 metres or so, more or less the size of a large room.

And while 802.11b promises similar speeds to current wired networks, Bluetooth, though operating on the same radio frequency, offers much slower performance.

But speed isn't the issue. Recently, when Hewlett Packard's Michael McAvoy demonstrated his company's new Deskjet 995C Bluetooth-capable printer, it was clear that Bluetooth's performance was up to task. Using a just-released 3Com Bluetooth PC Card in his notebook, proud papa McAvoy could easily connect to the printer and effortlessly print out photos of his new baby.

Some readers may point out that PDAs, many notebooks and some printer models have sported infrared ports for several years, promising wireless connections.

But these infrared connections have been rarely used; their range is limited to a foot or so and the infrared ports have to be carefully lined up.

Bluetooth, using radio, doesn't have any line-of-sight requirements and has a wide enough range to let users just walk into the room to print, synch their PDA or shoot over photos from their camera to their computer or printer.

Bluetooth proponents point out that the technology was deliberately designed with relatively low range and speed. This helps keep power consumption down, important in small, battery-powered devices. And it should also keep costs down, though you wouldn't know it from the high prices of first-generation Bluetooth PC cards and Palm add-ons.

It's an attractive vision, promising cheap, ubiquitous devices sharing information as needed.

802.11b wireless has been growing in an otherwise shrinking high-tech market. But at the moment, Bluetooth remains more of a promise than a reality.

Some of that is the classic chicken and egg dilemma. We often imagine high tech as always changing, often explosively.

In reality, at least in the short term, manufacturers and users are both fairly conservative. Computer-makers are happy to offer faster models several times a year, but otherwise this year's products are fairly similar to last year's.

Most are loath to add a new feature such as Bluetooth to a notebook computer when there are few devices to connect to.

And why add Bluetooth to a printer when there are few Bluetooth-ready computers? (HP's Deskjet 995c covers its bases with a USB port for more conventional wired printing.)

The same vicious circle was broken for USB and Firewire technologies when computer-maker Apple forced users to adopt them by making them the sole means to connect to the company's products. It may take a similar act of will before Bluetooth devices, in development since 1994, become common.

Several local companies have front row seats on the Bluetooth bus, hoping it will take them for a long and successful tour. These include Exi Wireless, making Bluetooth-enabled terminals and routers, and Synchropoint, writers of some of the software needed by Bluetooth devices.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan