Bluetooth's Connection

You're a busy person who likes to work on the go. What must your life be like? Say you just bought a new Nokia cell phone and, naturally, you want to use it to get a wireless Internet hookup for your Toshiba laptop. You go out and buy a special cable (which only Nokia makes) to connect the two devices. Then you spend hours downloading driver software, installing it and fiddling with the settings. At last the online connection works. The next day, as your bullet train leaves the station, you power up your laptop and--arrrrgh!--you left your mobile at home. The passenger next to you offers her Motorola, but it doesn't like the Nokia plug, and anyway you'd need to install entirely different software on your laptop... So you give up and look out the window.

Getting digital gadgets to talk to each other can drive anyone nuts, but that may be ready to change. A consortium of 2,000 high-tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Sony and Intel, is pushing Bluetooth technology, a new global standard for wireless communications that lets any device talk to any other device without plugs, cables or software to install. At last week's Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, more than 30 companies were showing off the latest Bluetooth products, several of which will hit the stores in time for Christmas.

Bluetooth-enabled gadgets use a tiny radio chip that can transmit data directly to another device within a 10-meter radius. Unlike the infrared signals used in Palm devices and television remotes, Bluetooth transmissions don't need a direct line of sight, and they send a pretty hefty stream of data--1 million bits per second. Just as the legendary 10th-century Viking ruler united Scandinavia's warring kingdoms, the modern Bluetooth would allow gadgets made by rival companies to communicate with each other--Nokia phones talking to Ericsson headsets, Olympus digicams downloading onto Compaq PCs, Toshiba laptops using any cell phone to go online.

For consumers, Bluetooth's immediate advantage is that anything digital can now be cordless. Just in time for the holidays, Sweden's Ericsson is shipping a Bluetooth headset that connects wirelessly to a cell phone. (Toshiba and IBM have already come out with adapter cards that bring Bluetooth capability to existing PCs, and they expect to bring out Bluetooth-enabled laptops early next year. Sweden's C Technologies has developed a pen, called Magic Stick, that transmits its user's scrawl directly into a PC's word-processing program. It also includes a minute digicam that can capture images and beam them to the computer. Expected launch: late 2001. Meanwhile, Philips is working on television sets with wireless surround-sound speakers. And Samsung will soon begin manufacturing a wireless palm-size device called the PC-EPhone equipped with a cell phone, PC and Web browser.

A second advantage is that Bluetooth would make everything compatible with everything else. No adapters, docking stations or special software. Since Bluetooth transmits in all directions, many devices can be networked simultaneously: imagine your kids on the school bus, cell phones or PlayStations in hand, all joined together in an electronic game. And with a cell phone or other connection, any of these devices can hook up to the Internet.

Will it sell? Or will Bluetooth go the way of WAP browsers, "e-cash" and other nifty technologies that no one seems to want? A lot depends, first, on how well the technology works. The consortium is still finishing up the specifications that will allow Bluetooth devices to speak the same language. They are also ironing out technological wrinkles. Bluetooth tends to interfere with wireless local-area networks and other types of transmissions that operate on the same frequencies.

Manufacturers are also cautious about embracing the technology. Philips is holding off on making Bluetooth cell phones for fear they won't prove popular. Many manufacturers were burned when consumers found WAP-based Internet cell phones too cumbersome. Horst Laven, a Bluetooth developer at Siemens, says marketing gurus still aren't comfortable with the idea of the company's cell phones working seamlessly with the competition's.

Still, Bluetooth has a lot going for it. It is cheaper than other networking technologies and, unlike with telephone networks, transmission costs nothing. Although Bluetooth currently adds $50 to the price of any device, that figure is expected to plummet to less than $10 once production revs up. Bluetooth also consumes little battery power. And it is riding a powerful trend toward open, public, global standards. For these reasons Ericsson expects Bluetooth devices to number 2 billion by 2005. "This technology has applications we can't even think of yet," says spokesman Mikael Westmark. We'll have a better idea in the next year or two just what those applications might be.