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Ericsson's Bluetooth-enabled headset allows "hands-free" cellphone use without the cord


The tooth will set you free. That's the promise of Bluetooth, a wireless communication standard that later this year will start showing up inside a wide range of digital devices, enabling them to share information with desktop PCs and with each other through miniature, built-in radio transmitters.

Simplification is the driving force behind the technology, peculiarly named after an ancient Viking warlord, Harald Bluetooth. If you want to swap lots of data between appliances today, wire connections are generally required. And if you've got two or three items to connect -- say a laptop, a modem and printer -- your briefcase and workstation can rather quickly come to resemble a nest of hydra-headed snakes. Things have improved since the advent of Universal Serial Bus (USB), a one-size-fits-all cabling solution that is replacing the mess of incompatible connectors that jack into computers and peripherals. But why are wires needed at all?

In 1998, computer and telecommunications equipment companies including Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba got together to untie users from the tyranny of the electrical cord. The consortium came up with an open specification for building short-range radio transmitters/receivers on microchips -- small enough to be installed as standard equipment in computers, printers, personal digital assistants, digital cameras, cellphones and other gadgets. The radio chips are expected to be priced at about $30 at first, with the price falling to $5. Low manufacturing costs are crucial. Consumers won't buy Bluetooth-equipped products if they have to pay a lot extra, and without widespread adoption the technology won't be useful. The goal is to enable as many types of devices as possible to work together.

Once a universal wireless platform is established, Bluetooth's backers say, a host of applications will emerge. Obviously, information stored on a Bluetooth-equipped computer, such as schedules and contact lists, will be simple to update on a similarly equipped handheld digital assistant such as a Palm device. A mobile phone becomes a no-cables modem for a portable computer. Also possible will be instant communication between any computer and any printer without the hassle of configuring individual devices to work with each other. Proponents expect Bluetooth will make it easier to create home networks in which up to eight devices in different rooms will be able to swap information -- allowing you to, for example, retrieve e-mail from your computer in the study and display it on a kitchen monitor, to send MP3 files to a Bluetooth-enabled stereo system in the den, or to read an e-magazine downloaded from the Internet on an electronic tablet anywhere in the house. Two Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones can even be used like intercoms, since the technology handles voice as well as data.

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The StoryBox displays photos from a digital camera memory card or received over the Net

The standard is not, however, an alternative to existing cellphone networks. The radios are designed to consume little power, hence their range is limited to about 10 meters. That's fine for portable-device connectivity and most home applications, but is unsuitable in large offices (a different standard known as IEEE 802.11 is proposed for wireless workplace networks). With a data-transfer rate of less than one megabit-per-second, Bluetooth is not as fast as other solutions. Infrared (IrDA) ports often used today in laptop computers and Palm PDAs can reach speeds of up to 10 mbps. Infrared, though, requires "line-of-sight" transmission. One of the strengths of Bluetooth, which use radio waves in the unregulated 2.4-gigahertz range, is their ability to transmit through walls and other obstacles.

With plenty of heavyweights behind the technology -- more than 1,500 manufacturers are developing Bluetooth products -- it appears poised for rapid proliferation. IBM last month said starting this summer it will roll out a range of Bluetooth accessories including a modem for Palm PDAs and a Bluetooth plug-in for ThinkPad notebook computers. Acer, Compaq, Dell and Gateway expect to incorporate the technology within a year. By 2004, according to International Data Corp., there will be 450 million Bluetooth devices in use worldwide. And that's the tooth.


cover story | high-capacity memory cards | broadband wireless transmission systems | "Bluetooth" short-range communications chips

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Vol. 2 No. 2

Cover: Three technologies that will shape the post-PC era
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