Wi-Fi steals Bluetooth’s thunder

Let’s face it — Bluetooth, once declared The Next Big Thing in connectivity, hasn’t lived up to the overblown expectations that accompanied the launch of the standard for short-range wireless connectivity.

According to the hype of four years ago, the enterprise would be up to its figurative

ears in Bluetooth-enabled printers, PCs and fax machines by now. More than one analyst called it the next wave to revolutionize how people do business.

But Wi-Fi — the burgeoning wireless LAN technology standard — has been garnering the lion’s share of enterprise IT attention and budget, eating up some of the market Bluetooth was envisioned as dominating.

Bluetooth “”was originally going to solve every 10-metre cable problem,”” says Mike McCamon, a 20-year tech industry vet who was appointed executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) last April. While there are 600 Bluetooth-qualified products and the technology is gaining ground among European consumers, there have been barriers to adoption among IT departments. Computer operating systems, for example, didn’t support Bluetooth until Microsoft launched Windows XP last year. There’s also been “”a surprising amount of traction”” for the 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless LAN specification, though McCamon doesn’t blame that for Bluetooth’s disappointing take-up. He views them as complementary technologies.

Not everyone agrees.

“”Traditionally, the two sectors were positioned differently,”” says Warren Chaisatien, senior telecom analyst with IDC Canada, 802.11b is better capable of integrating machines with cellular technology for a “”truly seamless”” network experience, he says.

Stephen Howe, vice-president of technology development with Telus Mobility, says Wi-FI has crossed over into a lot of the Bluetooth market opportunity space, with a spiralling effect — more adoption means lower prices means more adoption.

Bell Canada — which is piloting a Wi-Fi-based public Internet “”hotspot”” strategy — has no significant Bluetooth plans, according to spokesman Don Blair.

Howe thinks the personal area network will be more ad hoc than integrated. “”I think the technology will be more niche than people thought,”” he says. He points to Bluetooth in gadgets such as wireless headsets for cell phones and other consumer markets.

McCamon sees growing consumer adoption as a back door into enterprise use. To drive that consumer adoption, he announced the 5-Minute Ready plan — a collection of tools will make it easier for manufacturers to deliver devices that work with minimal set-up required by the user — at the Bluetooth Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., in December. “”(Bluetooth use in the enterprise) will be more grassroots, coming from the user side rather than ordained from on high,”” he says, noting PCs, PDAs and cell phones wormed their way into widespread corporate use the same way.

In Europe, the Bluetooth action has been on the cell phone front. In Asia, Bluetooth has largely been a consumer electronics technology. Those regions lead in adoption of the respective technologies.

In North America, however, the focus has been on the PC — the same PC that didn’t even support Bluetooth technology until recently.

“”We should be focusing on the user experience, not the technical details we always like to talk about,”” McCamon says.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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