Clear up your desktop: get rid of the cables

27 Feb 2003 View Comments
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In a world of GPRS, Bluetooth, and 802.11 wireless local area network (Lan), there is no shortage of opportunities to cut almost any cable you like; except, of course, the ones to recharge the batteries.

The relative ease of wireless integration hasn't gone unnoticed by the industry. It's often not a question of whether to include wireless connectivity, but rather how much.

"Any manufacturer worth its salt will already be producing goods with wireless capabilities," says Ricoh UK product manager Jeremy Bossenger.

But proliferation and success are not necessarily the same thing. Bluetooth SIG, the industry standards and promotion body, is on the verge of approving its 800th device, but there are still questions about the long-term success of the technology.

While it's not unusual to find someone who owns a Bluetooth device, thanks to integration in PDAs and wireless phones, it's less common to find someone who owns two and actually uses it.

Bark versus bite
"Bluetooth should have been far cheaper, but the price initially was similar to some [802.11] products," explains Eric Clauzel, chief technology officer of CometLabs, a networking manufacturer.

Although Bluetooth's range, bandwidth, and power consumption are considerably less than wireless Lan, the fact that the standards emerged at about the same time made it a challenging sell.

The versatility of the format has also pulled development and promotion efforts in many directions. "It's almost a curse that Bluetooth enjoys a very broad support base, because that support base will all have different things in mind," observes William Clark, research director at Gartner.

"Someone who's developing a remote control for a TV doesn't have the same concerns about security and interoperability as someone who's developing a gateway for corporate enterprise application traffic."

But Bluetooth's primary backers defend their progress. "We are way ahead of schedule compared with the adoption of USB," says Mike McCamon, executive director of Bluetooth SIG.

Bluetooth enjoys strong (but not yet universal) support integrated in PDAs and mobile phones.

Add-on cards are as small as SD modules, or tiny USB dongles from companies such as CometLabs and Mitsumi. Nokia, originally seen as a holdout, has announced Bluetooth connectivity for its upcoming N-Gage portable game console.

"If it's going to happen at all, it's going to happen now," states Alan Colley, Bluetooth product manager at peripheral manufacturer Belkin.

In the rush to praise or criticise Bluetooth, it can be easy to ignore the fact that it is not the only game in town for short-range device communication.

Infrared is a mature, well-designed technology, and local RF solutions have been popular for mouse and keyboard connectivity for years. The disadvantage of non-standardised RF solutions is the annoying possibility for the proprietary receiver stations to gather around a desktop PC.

But companies such as Logitech continue to sell a wide range of keyboards, mice and even cameras on custom RF transmitters.

IR, Bluetooth and 802.11b have their distinct edges. IR is extremely low power and, thanks to television, universally understood and deemed non-threatening by technophobes.

Bluetooth eliminates line-of-sight requirements and extends the range to about 10 metres. 802.11b increases the range to potentially hundreds of feet, and increases bandwidth, although at a cost of power consumption peaking at many watts, rather than being measurable in milliwatts like Bluetooth.

"In reality, if IR was properly implemented by everyone it would be a useful wireless communication method for personal area networking," says Tony Revis, general manager of Extech Instruments, a producer of wireless field printers that have used infrared since 1995 and Bluetooth for over a year.

Bluetooth's many applications give it the edge over IR - it can link anotebook online via GPRS, without so much as taking the phone out of a pocket or briefcase, for example.

The ability to ignore line-of-sight and location is an advantage the ultra low-cost IR will never enjoy, and it is that invisible fire-and-forget convenience that adopters are counting on, rather than a concerted IT effort to embrace the technology.

"Bluetooth, if it were to work, becomes naturally pervasive," maintains Geoffrey Baird, chief executive of wireless push infrastructure developer Commtag.

"The user makes the decision to buy push email, they don't sit there and ask: 'How much is Bluetooth [worth] to me?' in that equation."

Standard challenges
Unlike wireless Lan, where the technical standard and the 'Wi-Fi' trademark body evolved separately, the Bluetooth SIG operates as a technology, certification, and trademark all in one.

The IEEE 802.15 spec does include some Bluetooth technology, but there is not yet a visible distinction, mainly because Bluetooth offers many royalty-free services.

The lack of a single industry stack has annoyed users and embarrassed supporters.

"The problem is that a Bluetooth stack from Company A doesn't quite work right with a Bluetooth stack from Company B, or only a subset of certain functionality is supported," explains Ken Smiley, director at Giga Group.

Microsoft's introduction of a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard was hailed as an important move, and although a native Bluetooth communication stack has still not worked its way into the operating system of Windows XP Service Pack 1, developers can obtain the native drivers from Microsoft.

Another hurdle for Bluetooth is that the elegance of cable-cutting only goes so far. Any once-wired device made wireless needs to run on battery, and exchanging desktop or laptop bag clutter for a gaggle of AC adaptors or button-sized batteries lacks widespread appeal.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see Eveready and Duracell taking stock in Bluetooth technologies, because it serves them to do so," says Smiley.

As portable Bluetooth devices deal with power challenges, the 802.11 space is getting assistance in access point deployment through the increasing popularity of power-over-Lan equipment from companies such as PowerDsine which produces equipment to speed up and cut the cost of hotspot implementation.

"You're eliminating the need to call in an electrician for deploying access points in remote areas," points out Amir Lehr, vice president of marketing.

Bluetooth's limited range and its 'personal area network' concept eliminates the need for a wireless access point for inter-device communication in most cases, although companies such as 3Com do sell access points for printer sharing.

The case for Bluetooth access to enterprise printing is an odd one given how deeply entrenched conventional network printing already is.

3Com says it offers print access to guest users without giving them access to the corporate intranet, but IR printing already does the same job (presumably Bluetooth offers more of a wow factor than an IR beam), and 802.1x authentication standards are supposed to allow IT to set up 'risk-free' guest accounts for limited resources for precisely this scenario.

Bluetooth advocates argue that the market potential for their technology is greater than 802.1x-ready sites, but not everyone agrees.

"One of the spins the Bluetooth manufacturers are putting out is that they are 'shipping more chips than Wi-Fi". But for every Bluetooth inquiry I receive I get at least 10 about Wi-Fi. It's all in the application, not on the chipsets," argues Clark.

After all, there are tens of millions of IR chipsets in the wild, yet it is not a hot technology.

Bluetooth and 802.11: just friends?
Everyone in the industry, from the Bluetooth SIG to the system and gadget makers, seem to be reading from the same phrasebook.

They each claim that the overlap between Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless is virtually nil, that both are and will be great successes, and buyers will gladly pay for two, three, or even four wireless radios in every important piece of computing hardware.

In short, the technologists don't want to be accused of putting down their fellows, and the vendors don't want to close the door on potential sales. 'The folks in the 802.11 space are comfortable with Bluetooth occupying the space that it does," says Smiley.

It will be worth analysing the likelihood of Bluetooth integration at the desktop and laptop level, however, if the current rush towards 802.11b integration continues.

Although Intel Centrino is little more than branding hype (the wireless component is a standalone card), competing chipset maker VIA claims it will have a fully integrated 802.11b solution by the end of the year, and it remains to be seen how much integrated wireless capability, and how many radios, integrators will be willing to absorb.

"With the price coming down in laptops, I don't think the future will have multiple [wireless] chipsets," predicts Clark. "If you're in IT, you have to worry about the lockdown of all the possible connections on those devices."

Many count on the same back-door phenomenon that popularised PDAs in the enterprise - users bringing them from home and building enough critical mass for support - to catch on for Bluetooth. Expect a learning curve.

"You don't see Bluetooth being used for many business purposes, so the right level of savviness among your support people isn't where it is for 802.11 technology," notes Smiley.

However, Bluetooth doesn't have the same known security gaps as the original 802.11a/b Wired Equivalent Privacy implementation, so it does have an advantage.

"There are going to be organisations that say: 'I don't want [802.11] in my box at all', be it for devices or for wireless Lan usage," predicts Jonathan Powell, European business manager of Dell's Latitude line.

Although Bluetooth as more than a personal-space network seems unlikely at present, some are hoping to push the technology beyond conventional device-to-device chatter.

Phil Slavin, chief technology officer of BT Ignite Solutions, says his unit is looking at developing wireless applications that would use Bluetooth to pull a wireless phone SIM as a security token, to perform authentication tasks.

"The phone becomes the 'something you have', and a Pin or password is the 'something you know'. Bluetooth is an obvious choice for that."

In the novel concept category, DLink offers the DCS-1000W, a VGA-resolution video camera with both Ethernet and 802.11b connectivity.

Viewsonic is taking wireless display one step further in its airPanel line, a 15in LCD tablet running Windows CE that operates as a VGA display when docked and, through the use of Windows XP Professional desktop sharing, acts as a portable gateway to the desktop in mobile mode. airPanel communicates with the host PC over an 802.11b link.

New specs, new opportunities
Given the accelerated adoption of 802.11b at the PC, some have wondered about the potential of a lower-power, 1Mbps-locked variant of the standard for devices, to supplant Bluetooth.

But Extech's Revis says the cost of implementing 802.11 in his products would be two-and-a-half times more expensive than Bluetooth. It's unlikely that any manufacturers will choose the more power-hungry format without good reason.

Although Bluetooth SIG was non-committal on IEEE in assisting the technology curve, some see the new 802.15 specification line, which includes Bluetooth and Bluetooth/wireless Lan interoperability guidelines, as an important move.

"Now IEEE are involved we have some good standards around Bluetooth. They have also taken action to stop interference between 802.11 [b/g] and Bluetooth devices," observes Dell's Powell.

"Bluetooth as a cable replacement is making slow, but steady progress. Bluetooth as a technology for higher-level, more ambitious applications is likely to fail, specifically [proposed] high-speed Bluetooth going head-to-head against wireless Lan," says Gartner's Clark.

Further reading:
Commonly asked questions about Bluetooth .
Microsoft's Bluetooth keyboard and mouse kit for Window-based PCs.

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