Above the Crowd

Bye, Bye, Bluetooth

August 13, 2001:

“It’s just a fact of life
That no ones cares to mention
She wasn’t good
But she had good intentions.”
     -Lyle Lovett

It is time to say goodbye to Bluetooth, the much-marketed technology standard for connecting mobile devices wirelessly. Such a drastic statement is likely to draw criticism, especially from companies still hard at work on Bluetooth-related products. But the sooner those companies end their efforts, the better off they will probably be.

For those of you who don’t know, Bluetooth is a three-year effort by the tech industry to create a standard for allowing PCs to talk to PDAs to talk to cell phones, MP3 players, or to whatever other digital devices comes down the road. It’s essentially a wireless replacement for cable. The major cell-phone providers and many computer companies are also marketing Bluetooth as a broader solution to connect devices to printers and to serve as a complete wireless Internet connection. And several startups are working on voice-based paging systems—next-generation walkie-talkies—built around Bluetooth.

But I come to bury Bluetooth, not to praise it. The odds are stacked heavily against this well-meaning standard. And while many Bluetooth loyalists are likely screaming something similar to the old man’s line in Monty Python’s Holy Grail—“I’m not dead yet!”—it is time to begin penning the eulogy.

One should not be too surprised to see Bluetooth fail. There’s little history of well-organized and heavily marketed standards taking over the world. In fact, more often than not, the standards that really change the world sneak up on us from the outside. Something like TCP/IP (a 20-year sneak!) became the foundation of the information superhighway, while the cable industry strung together proprietary networks in Orlando. And remember Taligent, the attempt by IBM, Motorola and Apple to create an operating system that would topple Microsoft’s?

Okay, mentioning Taligent may be a cheap shot. The real problem with Bluetooth is the rising stardom of the 802.11b wireless Ethernet standard, which also goes by the more prosaic name of Wi-Fi. Not originally planned as a competitor to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is progressing at such a frantic pace that it is leaving others in its wake. As a wireless standard, Wi-Fi has two key technical advantages over Bluetooth: it is ten times faster, and it has about ten times the distance range. Yet it costs about the same, on a per-unit basis. And it is already on an upward spiral of increasing returns. As volumes skyrocket, costs decline. As costs decline, the number of applications the technology can serve increases. As this potential application universe expands, other solutions meet with an untimely early grave. Such will be the case with Bluetooth.

Search technical trade journals for recent articles on Bluetooth and you will notice a common theme: defensiveness. Headlines read “Don’t Write Off Bluetooth” and “Wireless Ethernet: Neither Bitten Nor Blue.” You see, the Bluetooth community is already off-balance, and it’s hard to play offense when you are constantly playing defense. When Microsoft announced a few months back that it was dropping Bluetooth support from Windows XP, the Bluetooth contingent must have felt like it was standing in quicksand.

Even without competition from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth would have major challenges. That’s because the very concept of a cable replacement like Bluetooth is flawed. In a world where every device is connected to a single network (read: Internet), there is no need to connect individual devices on an ad hoc basis. Consider this – a walkie-talkie is a device that supports communication directly between two nodes. A cell phone is a device that supports communications between “any” two nodes because they are all connected to a common network and they all have unique addresses. Blue-tooth is to a walkie-talkie whereas 802.11 connected to the Internet is more analogous to the cell-phone model.

This “connected” model is much more elegant than just letting a single device talk to another. For starters, if you store data in a network rather than on a single device, you are much better prepared to deal with the failure of that device. There is always an archive on the network. Second, if colleagues need access to the same data, having a centralized copy that everyone can retrieve makes much more sense. With Blackberry, your assistant can update a calendar change on the fly, and your PDA is updated in real time. Of course, if you insist on a direct desktop-to-PDA update, you can do it across the local-area network through Wi-Fi (or even directly, with the right software change).

Last week, Motorola released the Timeport 270c, a Bluetooth-compatible phone. However, if you wish to connect this phone wirelessly to your desktop, you need to purchase the $299 Bluetooth connectivity kit with Bluetooth Smart Module (to plug into the phone) and a Bluetooth PC card (for the notebook). Seems like a lot of work to replace a cable.

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