Bluetooth is a success, says Anders Edlund, marketing director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the body that puts together the cord-replacement standard. A million devices equipped with Bluetooth are selling each week.
But that's not the whole story. What if no one uses those Bluetooth features? Why is Bluetooth so hard to get to grips with? Will consumers - and executives - ever really take it to their hearts?
But first he showed us all the Bluetooth gadgets you might want in your stocking - including (for those with large stockings) a honking big BMW SUV, with factory-fitted Bluetooth.
Have a Bluetooth Christmas<
Sitting in the electrically-adjusted leather driving seat, Edlund could dial a phone call from the address book of the phone in his pocket, using special buttons on the steering wheel. A small display on the dashboard showed the number being called, before revealing the fuel consumption (a gas guzzling 7.1mpg). According to the brochure, Bluetooth-enabled BMWs will give you "extraordinary moments of unforgettable pleasure", which sounds nice, but probably only works if you actually like cars.
The SIG's other Christmas goodies come in four categories. The group is pushing in-car Bluetooth including GPS systems such as TomTom and in-car phone devices like the DriveBlue cigarette-lighter-socket device from Parrot. The slogan here is "Don't spend Christmas in jail" - a reference to the UK's new law banning the use of non-hands-free mobile phones while driving.
The next category is Bluetooth for imaging, where Edlund promises that it will reverse the trend of digital photography, by making photos easier to share. While digital photos are easier to take they are harder to share because people don't want to gather round the PC, says Edlund. But he has the answer: a Bluetooth device plugged to a TV. If this really does bring back afternoons poring over auntie's holiday snaps, we feel it may be something of a mixed blessing, but perhaps we are in the minority here.
The next heading is sharing where Edlund is careful to suggest users will share "video jokes" rather than MP3s or other copyright material. The final category is "Free to move" which was a vague woolly concept covering mice, headsets and anything Edlund handn't mentioned already.
The thing that looked most like a Christmas present to us was the Sony Ericsson Car 100, launched way back at the CeBit show, a radio controlled car you charge up and control from your phone.
Ok Anders, now tell us how Bluetooth really is progressing?
As the goodies were cleared away, Edlund painted a bright picture of Bluetooth, with the number of devices ramping up very quickly and a million shipping every week. Forrester Research and others are predicting bright times ahead.
Faced with that sort of optimism, we pitched all the tough Bluetooth questions we could think of at him.
How many people actually use Bluetooth?
Apparently the SIG has done no research on this, but Edlund admits that the proportion of people who actually use the Bluetooth features on the devices they buy is currently pretty low. In the early days, he explained, people who wanted Bluetooth would buy a phone because it had Bluetooth. "We are in the early stages of the consumer phase now," he says. In that phase, people will be getting Bluetooth without realising it and won't use it until they find something they want to do with it.
So is it like IRDA, the rarely-used infra-red standard?
He dismisses this comparison. "IRDA is data only, and came out way too early, at a time when no-one used their phones for mobile data," he says. "It is also limited to line of sight while Bluetooth works from my pocket." Anyway, he says, even IRDA is getting more use these days.
Why is it so complicated to use Bluetooth?
"The average consumer is not educated in IT," says Edlund. The SIG has a goal to make it so easy that any user can do real tasks with Bluetooth within five minutes, but it has its work cut out for it, because there are some things that have to happen before a connection is made.
Security requires the devices be put in pairing mode and a key entered. The Bluetooth group has made this as simple as possible, but it has to be there. "That is a trade-off," says Edlund. "You need to initialise and make sure they headset works with only your phone." Otherwise anyone could use a Bluetooth device to hijack the phone you are carrying in your pocket.
But it sometimes takes a lot of clicks to do anything
Another problem is that the user interface of some of these devices is complex anyway - and each vendor implements Bluetooth within its own user interface - so Bluetooth on two phones will look and feel different. "We would like to see the same user interface but vendors won't change," said Edlund.
Why can't it be as simple as Wi-Fi?
"Wi-Fi only handles one application, transporting IP packets," says Edlund. The corresponding part of Bluetooth (the MAC and PHY layers) is a simple definition, ratified as IEEE 802.15.1, but Bluetooth does a whole lot more.
"Bluetooth defines applications for pens, cameras, headsets and other things," says Edlund. The point is that, Bluetooth replaces cables between devices that don't necessarily have keyboards or other data entry devices. To make such ad hoc connections, a Bluetooth device has to have a lot of the interface work built in. Hence the thorny subject of Bluetooth profiles, which are defined by the SIG for a host of uses, like cameras, audio devices, phones and so forth.
Why are there so many profiles?
Bluetooth is sometimes criticised for having too many profiles, for too many kinds of device. Doesn't this fragment the standard? Edlund's answer is that the profiles are necessary.
The devices that are defined are changing as time goes by and new features are considered for them. For example, a keyboard connection to a phone would not have been thought of a year or two back, but a smartphone will definitely need one.
If the profiles are too complicated for developers the answer, says Edlund, is Implementors' Guides. These simplify things and contain guidelines of what options should be put in and what left out. Of ten planned Implementors' Guides, only one, for phones, has been published so far.
What about new profiles?
While some people rail at the number of profiles, others suggest things that ought to be added. These new profiles have to be developed through the SIG. "It's a tricky balance," says Edlund. "If you regulate everything, so it all has to go through a committee, then innovation is dampened."
What will bring Bluetooth into use?
If users need educating, will it be a big campaign that does it, or a steady trickle? Probably more of the latter, says Edlund, although he is excited about the prospect of Bluephone, BT's bid to use the Bluetooth cordless telephone profile to siphon calls (and money) away from the mobile networks back to wired phone lines.
BT and Orange (in Denmark) are the only public trials of the Bluephone concept that he is aware of. The difficult part will be to get mobile companies on board. To do that BT will have to convince mobile operators that the Bluephone will benefit them too.
Will UWB be a threat in future?
"Ultra-wide band (UWB) is always interesting," says Edlund. The technology promises 500 Mbit/s links over similar distances to Bluetooth. However, there are still two competing versions of the standard, Edlund points out. Also, the technology is not yet in mass silicon and is not approved for use outside the US.
Most importantly, if it is to handle ad hoc communications between many types of device from many vendors, UWB will need the same kind of profiles as Bluetooth has. "In three to five years, I imagine we could put the Bluetooth profiles on UWB," says Edlund. They could use UWB as a transport, in other words, and maybe even call it Bluetooth 2, or 3.
So it's mostly marketing now?
Yes, says Edlund. But that can be the trickiest part of the process. However, he is confident that there is nothing else around that does what Bluetooth does and betrays no doubt about its success.
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