April 5, 2001 1:55 PM PDT

Microsoft neuters Bluetooth

Bluetooth, the wireless technology that is supposed to connect cell phones, handheld computers and other devices in a personal-area network, remains all bark and no bite.

Microsoft will not add support for Bluetooth to its next version of the Windows operating system, XP. The company is one of the lead members of the trade group that is developing the Bluetooth standard.

The lack of support from the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant isn't fatal, but it will likely slow the technology's once strong momentum. Without Microsoft, Bluetooth adoption becomes slightly more onerous for hardware manufacturers and software developers as the software giant won't deliver a family of device drivers or other software to simplify how the technology gets incorporated.

The main problem? The Bluetooth juggernaut never materialized. "Production-quality hardware and software for Bluetooth isn't available," said a Microsoft representative. "Including Bluetooth support in Windows XP wouldn't deliver the type of experience Microsoft wants to deliver to customers."

Microsoft announced it would provide hardware and software support for Bluetooth by the first half of 2001 if production-level Bluetooth hardware and software was available.

"If anything, this move by Microsoft is a wake-up call to the Bluetooth folks that they need to get their products out there," Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq said.

Wireless networking alternatives, such as 802.11b, have also caught the industry's fancy. Both technologies allow consumers to wirelessly tap into standard networks. The infrastructure for 802.11b, however, is much further along. NEC and other notebook makers, for example, will release 802.11b-enabled notebooks later this Spring.

Microsoft has announced it will support 802.11x in Windows XP.

The Bluetooth reversal came as a surprise to some industry insiders. "With the kind of support from manufacturers and developers that Bluetooth has, I'm surprised that Microsoft would leave Bluetooth out," said Ken Hyers, research analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group.

"Any reasonable followers of Bluetooth would agree that the first half of this year was pretty early to expect anything from Bluetooth," Hyers added, saying the end of the year is a more likely time frame for products to be available.

LeTocq said that Microsoft can still add Bluetooth support with a relatively easy upgrade.

Still baby teeth
Bluetooth has been a high-tech buzzword for about two years, but it hasn't lived up to expectations. Last month, at the CeBit trade show in Hanover, Germany, show organizers tried to create the largest Bluetooth network allowing visitors to connect to a data network wirelessly--but the experiment failed.

With Bluetooth, consumers create their own wireless networks, allowing devices such as personal digital assistants, cell phones and PCs to exchange information. Transmission speeds can reach up to 720Kbps within the 2.4GHz band--the same band as 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi.

Although Bluetooth and 802.11b complement each other in several ways, the two standards also compete because consumers will likely use them for the same function. With Bluetooth, data from a notebook would be sent by an internal Bluetooth radio chip to a cell phone.

Under 802.11b, data is transmitted directly to an 802.11b receiver, which would be wired into an Ethernet network. To work, 802.11b requires that the user be inside or near a structure containing a transmitter.

While some thought this could be an impediment, airports, hotels and office buildings are rapidly installing 802.11b transmitters. Notebook manufacturers are also opting to install 802.11b transmitters over Bluetooth transmitters. The 802.11b standard defines transfers rates of 11Mbps in the 2.4GHz radio band.

Another factor in its favor is that 802.11b depends upon the same networking protocols and standards as traditional networking, so adaptation should be fairly easy.

Research firm Allied Business Intelligence estimates that manufacturers will ship 1.4 billion Bluetooth products in 2005, which is considerably more than its 20.2 million estimate for Wi-Fi shipments. However, Wi-Fi has the advantage now, with products based on its technology already shipping.

Other big-name manufacturers in the Bluetooth standard group include Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Toshiba, 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Compaq Computer and Dell Computer. In total, there are about 2,000 companies in the group.

Bluetooth borrows its name from the 10th century Viking King Harald Bluetooth, who united Nordic nations under one religion.

News.com's Ian Fried contributed to this report.

 

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