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WHAT’S NEXT; Promising an End to Cable Spaghetti

Thursday, September 30, 1999

By Katie Hafner (New York Times)
The New York Times version of this story can be read here.

BY early next year, computing and communications devices will begin showing up on the market with a communications technology called Bluetooth built into them. Their arrival, the companies supporting the Bluetooth technology say, will signal the beginning of the personal-area network.

Bluetooth, which is the creation of a consortium of computer and communications companies — Ericsson, I.B.M., Toshiba, Nokia and Intel — was conceived two years ago as a way to eliminate the tangle of cables that plague device-happy computer users.It has since evolved from a way to reduce last-minute trips to Radio Shack for that missing nine-pin serial connector into a technology for a broad range of wireless applications.

Bluetooth works by allowing high-speed communication among devices that are within 33 feet of one another. While some current mobile devices can communicate through infrared signals, those signals must have a clear, straight path from one device to the other. Bluetooth, in contrast, operates on a radio frequency, so its signals can penetrate walls and briefcases. That means an electronic organizer in your pocket could transmit a phone number to the cell phone in your briefcase and initiate a phone call — all part of your personal-area network.

With Bluetooth, your digital camera could send a photo straight to your printer. Or seconds after you snapped a photo from a ski lift, the digital camera could send the image to the cell phone in your pocket, which could then send the photo as an e-mail attachment to friends back home.

Consider slightly more far-out scenarios, too: You arrive at the airport and buy a ticket simply by walking past a wireless terminal, which confirms your identity, issues an electronic ticket and bills your credit card. And a flight attendant would no longer ask passengers to turn off their electronic devices. The plane’s master Bluetooth device would shut them all down automatically for takeoff and landing.

The rather mystifying name Bluetooth for this blend of hardware and software was the inspiration of a group of engineers from Intel and Ericsson who are admirers of King Harald Bluetooth, who ruled Denmark from 940 to 985 and is known for unifying the country.

Such seamless integration is Bluetooth’s goal as well, said Per-Erik Svensson, the Bluetooth marketing manager at Ericsson Mobile Communications.

By this Christmas, a limited number of devices containing Bluetooth will be announced. Ericsson, for instance, will introduce a wireless cell phone headset. The headset will come with a small clip-on adapter for the phone with a Bluetooth chip in it. In the first half of 2000, PC cards with Bluetooth chips will be introduced; high-end cell phones and laptop computers will begin to appear in the second half of the year. Peripherals, digital cameras and personal digital assistants won’t be far behind.

“Bluetooth will be in virtually every product within three to four years,” Svensson predicted.

Bluetooth’s 2.4-gigahertz frequency (a gigahertz is a billion cycles per second), which also happens to be the frequency for microwaves and a new generation of cordless phones, does not mean that a Bluetooth device will start your oven or make your phone ring, said Brent Miller, a senior engineer who specializes in Bluetooth at International Business Machines. Bluetooth uses spread-spectrum technology, which means that the signals are sent over a wide range of frequencies and jump from one frequency to another.

“It’s the frequency hopping, the hopping pattern and hopping speed that mitigates any interference problems,” Miller said.

Miller added that technical safeguards insured that a cluster of Bluetooth devices in, say, an airport lounge would not suddenly start talking to one another.

Bluetooth won’t be cheap. Initially, the add-on cost to manufacturers for incorporating Bluetooth into devices will be around $25. That will drop to about $5 as volumes increase. The cost to the consumer will, of course, be still higher.

That added cost has given some manufacturers pause. “Bluetooth is an interesting technology that everybody is taking a serious look at,” said Mark Lowenstein, a senior vice president at the Yankee Group, a technology research company in Boston. “But there has not yet been a solid commitment because the economics for deployment are not quite there yet.” Still, more than 1,000 companies have signed on as Bluetooth adopters, which means that they are interested in incorporating the technology into their products and services. Once Bluetooth gains widespread acceptance, said John Patrick, vice president for Internet technology at I.B.M., “you won’t buy a product without it.”

“Would you buy a Sony Walkman without Dolby?” he added. “I’m dying to have it, personally.”

Despite creative efforts at hiding them, Patrick said, cables run rampant in his office at home, connecting his computer to an MP3 player, label printer, fax-printer, Audible player, palm-size device and business card scanner. When he travels, his briefcase is filled with mobile devices and their attendant cables and cradles and often weighs more than his suitcase.

Bluetooth will allow people to be more inventive with the communications. You might be wearing a piece of jewelry, for instance, that was actually a wireless headset for your cell phone.

Or you might shake someone’s hand and exchange electronic business cards via your Bluetooth shoes.

But Patrick would rather not emphasize those futuristic applications. “Frankly, I think that stuff turns people off a bit, where we’re irrelevant and we’re all just a carcass, carrying a computer,” he said. “But the idea of cleaning up the cable mess and simplifying your personal productivity environment — now, that’s a big deal.”