Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Bluetooth & Wireless Networking

Ok, you all know I LOVE technology... my prayer rug faces Silicon Valley. I am a sucker for pretty much every gadget that comes on the market which promises to make my life easier (but invariably involves a day or two in configuration woes and leaves me with less hair). However, if you lived in my house, you would be witness to an almost daily tirade which usually begins "$@#!%! (expletive deleted) CABLES!...".  The myriad computers, peripherals, synthesisers,  samplers and telco equipment all work in concert to create a rat's nest of cabling which stretches from one end of the building to the other. Snaking across floors, lurking beneath rugs, lying in wait at the entrance to my bedroom, cables seem to be the bane of my existence lately. I can't tell you how many times I've tripped over them, bemoaned their inherent aesthetic, and wasted precious time attempting to devise clever new strategies to effectively deal with them.

So what about wireless?

Despite the fact that Apple Computer introduced wireless networking to the planet in 1999 with its AirCard interface and AirPort base station products, the major IBM compatible manufacturers have been largely left out of the game until very recently. Finally, IBM has introduced its new line of ThinkPad iSeries notebooks which utilise the IEEE 802.11b protocol to enable wireless networking in the same fashion as Apple did a year ago. There are additional vendors such as AirWay which offer competing products, although they typically operate at slower speeds than those based on 802.11b which transmits data at up to 11 Mbps. New 5GHz technology promises to deliver data at upwards of 54Mbps! This solution is only partial however, as it doesn't take into account my cell phone, pager or PDA.

Enter Bluetooth

Everywhere you turn these days, you stumble across a press release proclaiming the latest corporate adoption of the Bluetooth standard for "soon to be released" wireless devices. So what is Bluetooth? Simply put, it's a protocol which has been created by industry heavyweights 3Com, Motorola, Microsoft, Toshiba, Nokia, Ericsson, and Intel to enable a variety of devices including cellular telephones, PDAs, computers and associated peripheral devices to communicate wirelessly utilising RF in the 2.4 GHz band. Manufacturers promise that with Bluetooth, you'll be able to wirelessly sync your computer based PIM address book with your cell phone, connect to the net with your laptop utilising that phone's modem, download your email from your PC to your PDA, print a document from an e-book and signal your toaster that you'd like a bagel from your pager. "That's great!" you say – "so your cabling problems are over!". Well, not exactly.

Tooth Decay

Despite the fact that an IDC study states that there will be 450 million Bluetooth enabled devices worldwide by 2004, there are a number of hurdles this emerging technology is going to have to overcome if the public is going to adopt it in the numbers pundits are predicting.

  1. Unfortunately the 2.4 GHz band is very crowded due to the fact that it is unregulated. This means that interference may be caused by microwave ovens and 802.11b home networking products which also use this band may cause a serious problem with data transmission speed and integrity – not to mention the possibility of total network failure. The lack of regulation also means that in future any company may release products utilising this same frequency range – further adding to the potential for lost data and poor performance.
  2. Bluetooth is SLOW, running at 720Kbps. While this is great for surfing the web and sending email etc., you certainly wouldn't want to transfer a large file over a network running at this speed.
  3. Security is an issue.  While there are some basic security provisions inherent in the protocol, many, including banks, are very nervous about the prospect of its rapid adoption. Cell phone manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson are currently working to circumvent this difficulty.
  4. Due to the vast number of competing interests at work on the standard there is definite potential for profiteering. While each labours under the guise of mutual cooperation, many feel that most are secretly working on cutting out the competition by developing a proprietary version which will become the de facto standard. The greed driving this is almost always bad for the consumer.
  5. Range is limited. The maximum reported limit of about 100 feet is significantly reduced by the introduction of obstacles such as walls and doors to a practical range of about 30 ft. While this might be great for a 1 bedroom apartment, office buildings are not going to profit much from it. After all, how much more convenient is it to sync my Palm Pilot 30 ft. away from my desk as opposed to just putting the device in its cradle and pushing the button?

All in all, I think the world of wireless is going to get very interesting very quickly. While some see Bluetooth as a stop-gap measure, many think that once it has been adopted we'll be stuck with it for a long time. As the enormous financial clout of the corporate juggernauts has been certainly brought to bear to ensure this is the case, I'd be willing to bet on the latter.

Originally Published in HUB Magazine, November, 2000 by columnist Ray Richards

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