Bluetooth tightens grip on wireless market

Bluetooth tightens grip on wireless market

The Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, was renowned for unifying his country with Norway in the 10th century.

Today, Bluetooth is better known as a short-range wireless standard that connect a myriad of devices. While the origins of its name are long gone, the technology is taking up an increasingly important position on the wireless technology podium.

Why is it important? Users can cut through the clutter of cables and connect. Bluetooth allows users to exchange data over the airwaves up to a distance of about 10 metres.

So how big is the market? The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) estimates product shipments now exceed five million units per week worldwide. Products driving the market include mobile phones, PDAs, notebooks and mobile accessories.

Making a mark
From notebooks to mobile phones, the low-cost short-range, global standard for linking wireless devices is showing up in car kits, stereo speakers and even motorcycle helmets.

"Every time you blink an eye, another 10 Bluetooth chipsets see the world," Bluetooth SIG executive director, Michael Foley, said.

Indeed, as home networking gains momentum, mobile devices with integrated WLAN and/or Bluetooth are becoming more popular, according to market analysts at IDC.

Certainly, Bluetooth wireless technology continues to make headlines as the standards war continues to be waged on the wireless front, IDC senior mobile and wireless analyst, Warren Chaisatien, said.

"Bluetooth has dominated the short-range device-to-device wireless market for some time," he said. "And it doesn't appear to be letting up."

So who's involved? More than 2000 companies are licensed to build and sell products using Bluetooth wireless technology, while a host of blue-chip names including Intel, Toshiba, IBM, Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia are part of the Bluetooth SIG group.

In a nutshell, SIG represents companies from the telecommunications, computing, automotive, industrial automation and networking industries. While all are striking a Bluetooth chord, the automotive sector is sizzling at the moment, SIG marketing director, Asia-Pacific and Japan, Eric Schneider, said.

Toshiba technical specialist, Keith Rothsay, said these and other market segments were highlighting the fact that Bluetooth was now entering the limelight - it's been a long time coming, and we've seen a mishmash of standards.

"Bluetooth is a collection of 15 different technologies targeted at specific functions including mobile phones, printing and file transfers," Rothsay said.

"We've gone through a range of specifications - version 1.0 was just frustrating because it was very raw and difficult to work with. But in the last six months we've catapulted to 1.2 and now more recently, within the last few months, version 2.0."

But does the technology have staying power as we move into a more complicated, increasingly connected wireless world?

Simply put, Rothsay said resellers should feel confident the technology has achieved veteran status, and worked through a number of key issues. "Bluetooth has been a constantly evolving story," Rothsay said.

"It's had many issues in the past, but now it's a very established technology."

In many ways, Bluetooth had been complex, not well tested, and there had been a host of usage model issues, but those seem to be resolved, he said.

Living together
A big concern was its interference with Wi-Fi, considered the ubiquitous wireless standard in the enterprise, he said. But progress has been made, he added.

"There was a compatibility issue with 802.11g," Rothsay said. "But with the addition of Adaptive Frequency Hopping, the technology allows you to eliminate a lot of the collisions that were appearing on a fairly infrequent basis, about one in 32 times."

This is our good neighbour policy, SIG's Schneider explained. "We're trying to get out of everybody's way. We want to achieve a coexistence of technology. To have PCs phones, PDAs all living happily alongside each other is a much better picture."

Version 1.2 offered faster connections between devices and the adaptive frequency hopping, which is designed to reduce interference with other wireless devices.

Version 2.0 adds additional enhancements to the hopping feature by adding the Intel Coexistence Support feature for Centrino-based 802.11g, Rothsay said.

The specification also pumps up the Bluetooth speed, via the enhanced data rate (EDR), from 1MB to 3MB.

"It's important consumers know that Bluetooth doesn't compete with Wi-Fi," he said.

Although version 2.0 is out of the gates, the majority of products still maintain version 1.2, which has been out for about 20 months, Schneider said.

"We have a roadmap three years out, and two more specified versions, with various planned features including security and power optimisation."

And while Bluetooth features and enhancements are greeted with enthusiasm, the most exciting development to hit the Bluetooth scene this year is SIG's decision to integrate the technology with the ultra wide-band (UWB) standard, Schneider said.

"The move would enable future usage scenarios requiring higher data throughput, and address future consumer needs," he said.

"We were going to design our own high-speed option, but realised UWB had already been developed and was working as a personal area network."

With digital content size increasing, the bit rate required to move data from device to device increases, Schneider said. With higher throughput, users would be able to stream high quality video between portable devices, for example.

While it's still early days, the goal is to work towards an architecture that allows devices to take advantage of UWB data rates for scenarios that require high speed.

Bluetooth will be important to maintain backward compatibility with existing devices on the market and future products not requiring the higher data rate, he said.

"We'd like to see wireless UWB-converged solutions in the next 12 months. It's really aggressive, but possible," he said.

Let the battle commence
The adoption plan isn't so simple, however, he said. Adding excitement to the scene is the fact there's a battle going on.

At the moment, it's a two horse race, Schneider said. There are two competing UWB groups vying for standards to be adopted: the UWB Forum, mainly backed by Motorola and the mobile phone companies, and the Wi-Media Alliance, supported by PC-centric, multimedia players including icrosoft and Intel.

"There are reputable companies leading both efforts. Both groups have designed a standard that sends data at 480Mbps," he said.

"The problem is there are two to choose from. Our plan is to work with both of them, and we're supposing one or the other will prevail. So, in a sense, we're not taking sides."

Asked what differences set the standards apart, Schneider said one was geared more towards the mobile phone platform, while the other had a PC bent.

"These two groups have been working on their differences for the past two-and-a-half years in the IEEE. But everybody walked away from the table and they are letting the market determine the end of the story."

And the industry is piping up about the latest Bluetooth/UWB relationship, although it's still early days in terms of product development and branding.

"This development is very significant because we thought UWB would replace Bluetooth - but it will become more of an enhancement now," Rothsay said.

Mutual benefits
The move to adopt the UWB standard as a connection method was the biggest news to hit the wireless scene this year, IDC's Chaisatien said. The move could see Bluetooth act as the peacemaker in the standards war.

"Bluetooth and UWB were long-time rivals, but now we'll see a converging of the two, which will mean greater frequency and coverage," Chaisatien said.

UWB will benefit from Bluetooth's brand equity and market penetration as well as its technical and organisational maturity.

Chaisatien said the two will make a fine pair, and would be an evolutionary move as consumers continue to increase the use of portable and digital media devices.

"The need for standardised, high-performance, low-power connectivity solutions is vital," he said.

"From the consumer's perspective, this means seamless connectivity with PCs, phones and consumer electronics equipment."

Intel's business development manager, customer solutions group, Sean Casey, said UWB promises to connect a host of devices.

"UWB offers a much higher throughout and can move large amounts of data. It can connect notebooks to TVs and can stream video or offer more storage. So this is big news."

Devices in and around the home, and in offices, will get a whole lot friendlier, he said.

"The duo will let users acquire and share media within the home or car, at work and on the go," Casey said.

But before bringing products to the global market, fundamental issues of UWB needed to be resolved, Schneider said, including interference issues with wireless LAN, WiMax and new cellular bands, in addition to the lack of a worldwide spectrum allocation for UWB.

His other top priority involved sorting out regulatory concerns.

"Bluetooth has worldwide regulatory approval - it operates on the 2.4GHz spectrum," Schneider said. "But UWB has regulatory approval in the US and it's limited. So we need to see if UWB gets regulatory approval worldwide."

Selling opportunities
Despite the continual twists and turns on the standards front, resellers should be assured that the continual take-off of wireless technologies means more selling opportunities.

"Once there's less fragmentation, there's more ease of use, and better business opportunities for resellers," IDC's Chaisatien said.

The top three issues to consider when peddling the wireless story, he said, continue to be standards, security and cost benefits.

Indeed, better standards and industry agreement translates into more business for resellers going after the digital home and mobile computing segments, Intel's Casey said.

The convergence of IT and CE devices will benefit from the latest standard developments, he added.

"How consumer electronic devices will interact with PC technology, and how they bleed over into the CE space, is a major focus area among companies and a hot market segment. The vision is to get these devices to work together," Casey said.

Plantronics managing director, Graeme Gherbaz, said resellers should look to the headset market for some Bluetooth action.

"The headset market had expanded from the call centre to all manner of applications and is now relevant to the office environment," he said.

The company, which introduced a lightweight communication headset in 1962, and featured in a high profile event including Neil Armstrong's transmission from the moon in 1969, aims to pitch its Bluetooth-enabled headsets to mobile professionals, along with digital home and entertainment-focused partners.

Cutting the cord is a prime motivator for technology uptake, according to Gherbaz.

"Bluetooth is showing up in stereo devices, MP3 players and in devices in the office environment," he said.

"People don't want to be tethered to the devices. It was first conceived as a printer to printer technology, but is taking off in the voice space."

The company's latest version, dubbed the Voyager, uses the adaptive frequency hopping feature to eliminate interference with Wi-Fi. It lets users switch between two Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as a mobile phone, office phone, laptop or PDA.

Software improvements
Improvements on the software front will also mean more Bluetooth-related sales, Toshiba's Rothsay added.

"Next to interference, the biggest hold up has been poor quality of software. But now the software is clever and offers wizard-driven interfaces," he said.

Symbol Technologies wireless expert, Damian Stock, said resellers should check out some of the more innovative Bluetooth-related opportunities, such as tracking passengers once they've checked into an airport.

While these are niche applications, there are a growing number of usage scenarios given the technology's widespread adoption - particularly within the past 18 months.

"Bluetooth is a mature technology and resellers can be comfortable with the fact there are so many devices out there, which means more usage scenarios," Stock said.

From portable printing to wireless point-of-sale applications, wireless technologies, including Bluetooth, are opening up market opportunities for resellers.

Portable printing, meanwhile, enables the production of hard copy backups of digital information and signature printing, and the generation of receipts or tickets for the user's mobile computing applications, he said.

"There are many enterprise applications for Bluetooth. I see resellers providing the product to support these sorts of applications, and working with system integrators," Stock said.

Key markets
Key market segments for some of the wireless-enabled gear could include retail and manufacturing as well as transportation and distribution. But, he cautioned, resellers should always ensure they get Bluetooth-related products that meet industry standards.

"The spectrum coexistence issue is significant," Stock explained. "Partners must know the products they select to ensure it has the built-in intelligence to mitigate the interference.

"Some of the smaller manufacturers from overseas haven't considered the spectrum issue, and so it means resellers have to think a little harder about implementing wireless technology. There are a few traps for the unwary."

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