Consulting » Teething problems for Bluetooth.

Teething problems for Bluetooth.

The new wireless networking standard, Bluetooth, is much hyped, solidly backed and has great potential. But so far, it isn't working properly.

Bluetooth is one of the most hyped technologies of the moment. Originally developed to connect mobile phones to accessories without wires, Bluetooth has now developed into a complex wireless LAN-style networking technology.

More than 2,000 companies affiliated to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) are now poised to implement Bluetooth across a wide range of applications which need secure reliable short-range radio links between devices.

A number of Bluetooth-enabled products have already hit the market. Red-M, a networking equipment manufacturer, is supplying Bluetooth internet servers. Digianswer, a subsidiary of Motorola, is supplying PC cards badged. Sony has invested in Bluetooth chip manufacture. A Bluetooth-enabled headset has appeared from GN Netcom, and, more recently, a host of products have been announced, including Nokia’s add-on for its 6210 mobile phone, Ericsson’s Bluetooth-enabled telephony headset, and, bizarrely, Bluetooth-enabled jewellery from IBM.

“There is a huge move at the PC end of the IT industry to incorporate Bluetooth into laptops and PDAs,” says Jim Schoenenberger, head of telecommunications at Cambridge Consultants. “But, more interestingly, we are beginning to see some large companies in the planning stages for Bluetooth implementations. Others are just beginning to look at the concepts and are trying to work out how they can use it.”

The number of conceived implementations for Bluetooth is growing fast. Specialists such as Red-M and Cambridge Consultants are continually finding new ways for companies to exploit short-range wireless communications.

“Some companies are looking at the possibility of using Bluetooth technology in healthcare,” says Schoenenberger. Many medical processes involve the collection and analysis of real-time data, with data usually being processed at a bedside unit before being distributed. Wireless technology makes it possible to collect biometric data from a patient and have it analysed elsewhere.

Airports are also likely to be transformed by Bluetooth and, according to Schoenenberger, several are already in the planning stages for using the technology. According to Red-M, there will be no more waiting and queuing at the airports of the future. Your PDA or WAP phone will help you check in automatically, with your electronic ticket being validated by the airport’s Bluetooth network. Entry to the business lounge and upgrades could also be automatic.

However, the huge enthusiasm for Bluetooth and the genuine potential of the technology do not guarantee its success. Several factors may hold it back. There is competition from other standards – Bluetooth is not the only wireless technology on the market. Problems of interoperability between devices have yet to be solved and there is still uncertainty about security and usage.

Laureen Cook, mobile partner at KPMG, says: “Large corporations, especially those which may be undergoing a move are incorporating Bluetooth into their plans, but lots of companies are sceptical about security, and in lots of ways the jury is still out on the technology. The handshaking between devices is still being developed and this is crucial – you don’t want a confidential document ending up on a colleague’s PC.”

David Johnson, telecoms specialist for reinforces this point. “If I’m surfing the web on my PDA while on the train using a Bluetooth connection, how do I make sure that it is my phone and not the person sitting four rows up the carriage who is connected?” he asks.

Interoperability is also a problem. A recent report (The European Impact of Bluetooth, by marketing consultancy Frost & Sullivan) notes that the thousands of potential product lines involved do not make the development of a standard easy. “The temptation to release products quickly without thoroughly testing their compatibility is strong, since early branding could bolster sales,” it says. But for Bluetooth to succeed, the products will have to work together seamlessly.

The report concludes that vendors must be steered towards selling applications and solutions and not a technology to end-users. The point is that Bluetooth is not a new product, but an added benefit to already existing products. In order for the technology to succeed it must exist all around us, in many public places.

Richard Payne, Bluetooth specialist at Accenture says: “If the technology is to be used in this pervasive way, there is bound to be an infrastructure build-up cost. Imagine the scenario where you go into a shop and point your device at a product to get a buyer’s guide. Is there going to be the volume of users to make the implementation worth while? If not, then its value is limited.”

This chicken and egg scenario is common to new technologies and one of the major catalysts of mass adoption is low cost. As Bluetooth becomes cheaper, the more the technology will be deployed, and the greater its effectiveness will be – but there is little point in owning a Bluetooth device unless there are plenty of other devices to which yours can connect. “At the moment, the cost of a Bluetooth chip is about $30 and the figure for mass take up is about $5,” says Payne.

The enormous industry support for Bluetooth is a good indicator that it will have its day. A number of factors make it attractive. It overcomes the limitations of infrared in terms of its range and the requirement of infrared devices that they are in each others’ line of sight. Also, it has a range of ten metres and allows data to be passed through walls. The limiting factor is that only eight devices can be linked together at any one time.

In terms of wireless networking, Bluetooth will compete with wireless LAN technology (IEEE 802.11). “It may just end up being a personal area network technology connecting my devices together – phone, PDA, headset, digital camera,” says David Johnson of “The key advantage it has is cost. Bluetooth modules should be extremely cheap to add to devices.”

At the moment the Bluetooth standard is at version 1.0, and problems with this first version have caused delays with the release of products. Recently, manufacturers have admitted that version 1.0 products are really just showcases for the technology. They suffer from power consumption problems and discrepancies in the specification have caused glitches. Version 1.1, which is due to be ratified in March or April this year, is a more complete version of the standard.

Payne admits that, as far as Accenture is concerned, actual Bluetooth implementations are still in the R&D stage. “We are working on leading edge next generation technologies. We use the connectivity that Bluetooth technology provides to explore how you might apply it.”

Meanwhile, according to The European Impact of Bluetooth the development and market success of the technology, will be driven by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the establishment of the 802.15 standard for personal area networking (PAN). The argument is that this standard will bring the rigour to the technology which is needed to resolve problems of interoperability, security, and interference with other radio technologies.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Management Consultancy.


The original Bluetooth concept developed by Ericsson was a low-power, low-cost radio interface between mobile phones and their accessories that could eliminate the need for cables.

The idea gradually gained momentum until, in 1998, Ericsson shared its research with Nokia, Intel, IBM, and Toshiba, forming the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Since 1998, members of the Bluetooth SIG have grown to more than 2,000 companies, making it the fastest growing industry standard ever.

Bluetooth manages to eliminate the need for wires by using a universal short-range radio technology which can provide links for voice, data and multimedia applications. Bluetooth-enabled devices can automatically sense each other, and begin instant two-way communication.

When one device detects another, the two form a loose network known as a personal area network or PAN. PAN clusters can then form into a kind of super-PAN which uses hub-units as a switch between different PANs.

The active range of Bluetooth is ten metres, which is enough to allow local devices to interact, for example, a mobile phone with a PDA. It is anticipated that Bluetooth will be built as standard into PCs, mobile phones, printers, PDAs, joysticks and even toys.

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