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The Effective and Real Range of Bluetooth
It’s not blue and has nothing to do with teeth, so just what is this Bluetooth that everyone’s talking about? Short answer: it’s a 1-mbps wireless technology with a range of about 10 meters that’s meant to replace many of the cables and wires you now use. Bluetooth uses radio signals in the 2.45-GHz band and carries both data and voice communications, so the technology can be employed in both computer and telephony devices. No line of sight is required, so Bluetooth could let you synchronize your PDA without removing it from your briefcase or use your TV remote from another room in the house. And since Bluetooth supports many standard communications protocols, it could finally make sharing data between cell phones, PDAs, notebooks, and the like as easy as it should have been all along.
Hail the Conquering Bluetooth
Sounds cool, but why the oddball name? The progenitor of the technology, the Swedish company Ericsson, named it after Harald Blåtand, a.k.a. Bluetooth, a 10th-century Viking ruler who made his name by uniting Norway and Denmark. Consolidating data between disparate devices is what Bluetooth promises to do. You can find a more complete and compelling retelling of his saga at the Bluetooth SIG Web site, www.bluetooth.com; there, you’ll also find info on the Bluetooth Developers Conference going on this week in San Jose, California.
Though I’d been hearing about Bluetooth for more than a year, I didn’t see evidence that it was much more than a bold plan until the recent Fall Comdex show. There, a large number of vendors previewed Bluetooth products and complained about the shortage of Bluetooth chipsets, which was holding up the implementation and delivery of products.
But I’ve had hands-on contact with one Bluetooth product: Toshiba’s $199 Bluetooth PC Card (BPCC). The BPCC (a standard Type II PC Card with a 1.25-inch extension containing the antenna) allows wireless networking with other BPCC-enabled notebooks. We installed Bluetooth cards into the PC Card slots of two Toshiba notebooks. A software package called SpanWorks let us transfer files and pass notes back and forth across the table. It worked quite reliably within the same room with our two-notebook mininetwork. Bluetooth allows up to 255 devices to be linked in a network the specification calls a piconet. In theory, piconets may overlap to form even larger networks.
Still, I have doubts about Bluetooth networking catching on with big business. Compared to a 56k dial-up, a 1-mbps connection is fast, but it pales next to a wired LAN (100 mbps) or an 802.11b wireless LAN (5.5 mbps to 11 mbps). Most notebook manufacturers seem to be heading toward 802.11b for wireless networking in their corporate models. However, I can certainly see a future for ad-hoc Bluetooth networks of PDAs, cell phones, and other devices, plus some bridged interoperability between the two standards.
Networking Anywhere, Anytime
Two products I saw working (but didn’t test) were the Anoto pen, which I covered in my last column, and C Technologies’ scanning pen. The C-Pen comes in several models and features single-line text scanning and OCR, language translation, and even low-res digital-image capture. I saw a prototype scan an email address from a business card, take the cardholder’s picture, and transfer both pieces of data to Outlook Express via Bluetooth–very handy for sales types and an interesting look at the future of digital convergence. The prototype was a bit bulky, but considering the items it’s replacing, it’s remarkable that it still fits comfortably in your hand.
Although it used prototype devices and was in some aspects theoretical, InnTechnology’s hotel check-in and services demo looked promising. Using a Visor PDA and a Bluetooth wireless module, the company demonstrated checking in without an agent, finding your way around the hotel using the PDA as a locating device, and ordering room service from a menu on the PDA. For tired travelers, bypassing the check-in counter alone is worth its weight in gold.
The Bluetooth SIG has explored a number of other usage scenarios that it calls profiles. One of my favorites is the Bluetooth phone. It acts as a cell phone while you’re away from the house. When you get home, it connects to your normal land line via a Bluetooth base station.
In a future where PDAs, notebooks, desktops, cell phones and other data-enabled devices can communicate and share data seamlessly, many things are possible–including a number of things as yet unthought of. But I do know one thing: Anything that reduces the number of wires in my life is a good thing.