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The Battle Over Bluetooth
Bluetooth, a standard for short-range wireless data transfer, is poised to become a cost-saving boon for the enterprise--but only if vendors can agree on protocols.
Posted Jun 2, 2000
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This column should be near and dear to all those who have lost or broken cables, or who have tried to use their IrDA ports to no avail. When I first heard of the Bluetooth initiative a few years back, I wondered what kind of marketing guru thought up a name like that-an ex-dentist turned Silicon Valley PR type? Turns out it was named for a medieval Danish king, although I still haven't figured out why. Bluetooth is simply a code name for a wireless micro-LAN standard. Ericsson created Bluetooth, and was joined in a consortium firms such as Nokia, Intel, Toshiba and IBM. What does this technology offer the enterprise?

Bluetooth backers have been working with, rather than against, IrDA standards that have been incorporated into PDAs, notebooks and other computing devices. Problem is, not enough people use IrDA, and users do not even know their unit is equipped with an IrDA port. I realize that Hewlett Packard and the IrDA folks have been promoting the use of this data-transfer solution for years, but the word apparently hasn't spread widely enough.

How Does It Work?
In theory, Bluetooth is simple. Every notebook, PDA, mobile phone and pager-that is, every device that is capable of communicating-should have a Bluetooth chipset embedded in it. This will most likely be a single integrated circuit that encompasses a low-power (perhaps a milliwatt or two) data-radio transceiver with a hardcoded unit ID number (like LAN cards) and/or a flashport, so an IP address can be uploaded and assigned to it at any time. The target cost: less than $25 added to the consumer's price of the device, and less to the manufacturer.

Here's how it might work in the real world. When I fly Alaska Airlines, I purchase my tickets online over its Web site. I receive a six-digit code that allows both the airline and me to track everything from payment to seat assignment. When I leave for Oakland from SeaTac Airport, I go to the Alaska Air kiosk and enter my code into the touch-screen terminal, answer a few questions and out pops my electronic boarding pass. Cool, you say. But if I had Bluetooth inside my smartphone or PDA, the kiosk would read my code from that unit inside my coat pocket and spit out a boarding pass. When I land in Oakland, I can make phone calls on my PCS digital phone using numbers from my PDA's phone directory, which I updated on the plane via its Bluetooth link to my phone.

A former colleague of mine has been e-mailing me for the past week trying to figure out what handheld device and PCS phone combo would best serve his voice and mobile computing needs. First, he wanted to get a Nokia 9110, but that smartphone won't work in the United states (works great in Europe, though)! Now he can't find IrDA drivers or cables that will link a Psion 5mx or Newton Messagepad 2100 to a Sprint, PacBell or AT&T digital phone for use as a modem. We talked about how Bluetooth would ease his digital toothache. That would be the best solution, if only it were currently available. Since it's part of a Personal Area Netork, a Bluetooth-equipped device can also act like it's part of a LAN while roaming through a building equipped with a Bluetooth-to-wireless/wired LAN conversion unit. Wouldn't it be great to show up at a client's office for a sales presentation and not have to hook up the LCD projector cables to the notebook? Bluetooth can eliminate this stressful situation, too. And yes, network security will be part of the specification.

Sharing the Wealth
Less human intervention equals big cost savings for IT organizations that really want to be "customer centric." But what will it take to implement this great new technology? Lots of cooperation and non-political alliances. Remember, in Europe there is just one cell phone standard: global system for mobile communications (GSM). In the U.S. there are four: analog mobile phone service (AMPS), code division multiple access (CDMA), GSM and time division multiple access (TDMA) on two frequency bands. For Bluetooth to work, it boils down to politics-supporting companies like Intel will have to sit down at the table with 3Com, Motorola, Qualcomm, AT&T, Metricom and BellSouth.

Who really wins? The end-user, as long as the technology is simple, friendly, inexpensive and a low-battery drain. Also, the manufacturers of the Bluetooth chipset will get a small fortune from the millions of devices that will embed the product. Wireless carriers will get new applications for their networks, and software developers will get to write new and improved applications for their customers. Nobody loses! Even Bill Gates gets happier((Bluetooth will bring his dream of a smartwallet one step closer to reality.

The ability to communicate quickly and securely between disparate computing and communications devices is revolutionary. Field force personnel and their companies can help ensure Bluetooth's progress by letting device manufacturers, software companies and wireless carriers know that they want to see Bluetooth up and running as soon as possible. You can visit the Bluetooth Special Interest Group's Web site, www.bluetooth.com, to research the latest on this potentially paradigm-shifting technology.

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