December 4, 2000 4:00 AM PST

Will all hail Bluetooth?

By now, Bluetooth technology was expected to be linking everything from laptops to cell phones to digital cameras. In reality, the short-range wireless communication standard is just now getting its baby teeth.

Bluetooth, a standard that allows electronic devices that are within 30 feet of each other to share information, was developed in 1998 and is backed by a Who's Who of tech giants including Intel and Ericsson. The technology is just now showing up as an add-on for laptop computers and in a few high-end cell phones.

Some tech companies have moved beyond the teething stage, however. This fall, several chipmakers started full production of the components needed for Bluetooth.

From Tuesday through Thursday, developers of Bluetooth-related gadgets will gather in San Jose, Calif., to show off their latest products and the potential for numerous types of on-the-fly communication. Demonstrations at the Bluetooth Developers Conference will show how someone with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone will soon be able to automatically get their flight information in an airport or be pointed to the nearest coffee shop as they walk along a city street.

While those scenarios are the promise of Bluetooth, the first devices equipped with the technology may not have many other gadgets to talk to--a fact that the industry knows could leave a bad taste in consumers' mouths.

"It's very typical for a lot of hype to happen with a new technology," said Scott Bibaud, Bluetooth marketing director at Broadcom, an Irvine, Calif.-based communications chipmaker. "People get disappointed if it doesn't all come out on day one."

Broadcom is one of many chipmakers working in the area. The list includes start-ups like Cambridge Silicon Radio and Silicon Wave, along with big names such as Lucent Technologies and Motorola. Bluetooth has recently been a popular field for acquisitions, with Broadcom acquiring Innovent Systems and Pivotal Technologies, Conexant buying Philsar, and Texas Instruments scooping up Butterfly VLSI.

By the end of the year, Bluetooth-enabled devices will probably number only in the tens of thousands. However, the backers of Bluetooth have a much grander vision. They want it to become ubiquitious--unifying all cell phones, laptops and handheld gadgets. The name Bluetooth comes from Harald Bluetooth, the Danish king who unified Denmark and Norway in the 10th century.

While two other wireless standards, 802.11 and HomeRF, are designed to create more permanent wireless networks, Bluetooth is designed to connect devices that are not always near each other.

For example, Bluetooth would allow a person to print a memo from her handheld computer on a printer at a friend's house. Similarly, the owner of a digital camera could use a nearby cell phone as a modem to e-mail his latest snapshots.

Analysts have identified several hurdles, including the high cost of adding Bluetooth and the size of the current generation of chips.

However, many still predict a bright future. Cahners In-Stat Group predicts that 1.4 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will be shipping annually by 2005.

One big issue is the high cost, at least initially, of making Bluetooth a reality.

Many of the first Bluetooth products are add-on devices for existing laptop computers. Today, a PC card that adds Bluetooth capability to a laptop can cost around $100. However, analysts and chipmakers have set a goal of making the technology cost no more than an additional $5 or so within a few years' time.

A lower price tag will allow companies to build Bluetooth into lots of devices. Many companies, such as handheld maker Palm, are counting on such cost and size reductions. Palm, which has already pledged to adopt the technology, plans to show off a Bluetooth-enabled handheld at its PalmSource developers conference the week after the Bluetooth gathering.

Some say Bluetooth has gotten a bum rap for not reaching the mass market yet. Supporters note that other standards such as Ethernet as well as many of the cell phone protocols took much longer to develop.

"It wasn't even known to the world two years ago," said David Lyon, chief executive of Bluetooth chipmaker Silicon Wave. "The expectations got ahead of reality."

Some of Bluetooth's promise is already visible. Ericsson and start-up Classwave Wireless plan to demonstrate at this week's conference how a Bluetooth network might work in a retail store, for example. In that case, a base station could detect a customer's Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and ask if the person might like a coupon.

Such a demonstration also brings up the potential problems with Bluetooth: People may not always want to take part in the dialogues that are possible between electronic devices. However, Classwave spokeswoman Gwen Carlson said she does not believe consumers will be bombarded by unwanted advertisements.

"You will not be able to be spammed," Carlson pledged.

 

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