The revolution is…back on!

Contrary to predictions, recent developments mean that, rather that fight it out (or fail altogether), a revitalised Bluetooth, the popular US ‘Wi-Fi’ system, and 3G phone services could combine to form a viable wireless communications sector, after all.

When Microsoft said just before Christmas that it would, after all, build support for Bluetooth into Windows XP, fans of the wireless networking technology must have hailed Bill Gates as an unlikely Santa Claus.

The software giant’s belated endorsement came eight months after it gave Bluetooth a big knock-back by announcing that it would not feature in the first releases of the latest version of Windows, citing a ‘lack of production-quality devices’ available for testing in time for XP’s strict launch timetable.

By last April even stalwart supporters such as Microsoft were losing patience with the slow progress of Bluetooth, a short-range radio technology designed to link products such as mobile phones, computers and printers with each other and the internet.

Since appearing as a defined standard in 1998, Bluetooth has been the subject of almost as much hype as the internet itself. But the promised flood of products failed to materialise amid developer disagreements, higher-than-expected production costs and concerns over interoperability between devices from different manufacturers.By the end of 2001, significant Bluetooth-enabled products were finally rolling out of the factories of major IT and electronics manufacturers such as Sony.

Combined with Microsoft’s promise of support, this prompted Simon Ellis of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the technology’s developer body, to claim it was emerging from what he admitted was ‘a trough of disillusion’.

If Ellis is right, the revival has come in the nick of time. While Bluetooth struggled for much of 2001, another wireless technology – designated 802.11b by the engineers then renamed Wi-Fi by the marketing wizards – had a good year.

Wi-Fi catches on in US

The Wi-Fi standard was specified by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers to unify various applications of wireless local area network (LAN) technology.

Wi-Fi has a faster data transfer rate and up to 10 times the range of Bluetooth. A laptop PC equipped with a Wi-Fi card can log on to the internet and send or receive data from anywhere equipped with an 802.11b base station, dubbed a ‘hot spot’ in the US. Hot-spots have appeared across the country at airports, in hotel chains such as Four Seasons and Marriott and in more than 500 Starbucks coffee shops.

Corporate private wireless LANs are common in the UK, but public networks such as those in the US are unknown here so far, although this could change soon.

Use of the unlicensed 2.4GHz radio spectrum in which both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth operate is regulated by the Radio Communications Agency. Offering a public service is currently prohibited, but the RCA is nearing the end of a review that is expected to recommend a relaxation of the rules. If that happens, Wi-Fi hot-spots could appear in the UK before the end of the year.

Wi-Fi’s equivalent of the Bluetooth SIG, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), said testing of products using a new 802.11a specification will begin this year.

Wi-Fi currently shares the 2.4GHz spectrum not only with Bluetooth, but with a host of everyday devices such as microwave ovens and cordless phones. By operating in the far less heavily-used 5GHz frequency band, 802.11a holds out the prospect of faster and more robust data transfer. Ever-mindful of the potential marketing possibilities, WECA has already come up with a name for the new specification: Wi-Fi5.

The progress of Wi-Fi was so rapid last year that it was frequently said to threaten the very future of Bluetooth – even though the two are not precisely competitive technologies.

But Philip Bates, UK general manager for Bluesocket, a wireless networking specialist that works with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, says it looks as though the two can live happily side by side – as long as each knows its place. He believes Bluetooth’s problems began when its supporters began to see it as more than a point-to-point cable replacement technology.

‘It tried to be a fully fledged wireless LAN, which it just wasn’t suited to be,’ says Bates. ‘It was also over-hyped to some extent, and the fact that it has taken a long time for Bluetooth products to get to market hasn’t done its image any favours.’With its superior range and data capacity, Wi-Fi was always going to outgun Bluetooth in the wireless networking stakes.

Back to basics

But the potential to eliminate cable connections, which has always made Bluetooth such an attractive prospect, remains its core appeal. Bates claims it is now returning to its roots as a low-cost, low-power way to connect small devices. ‘Developers are trying to bring it back to the original concept, not add on a load of bells and whistles.’Bluetooth has a particular strength in the market for small, handheld devices such as mobile phones, handheld computers and personal digital assistants. Running an 802.11 card on a small electronic product will drain its battery quicker than you can say ‘Wi-Fi’. But Bluetooth, which started life in the mobile phone industry, is far less demanding.

Bates believes Wi-Fi faces some major issues with data security. WEP, the security standard created for 802.11b, turned out to be less secure than its designers had hoped. Bates claims one of the biggest concerns for his customers is ensuring their wireless LAN stays inside the four walls of their building by adding extra layers of security and encryption. ‘They’re worried about someone sitting in the car park and intercepting their data. And if you have someone with malicious intent who knows what they are doing, that’s a real worry.’

Despite these concerns, Bates believes the sheer usefulness of Wi-Fi in locations such as the airport departure lounge or hotel lobby will ensure its continued growth.

Prices of Wi-Fi equipment have fallen by about half in the past 12 months, prompting more PC and laptop manufacturers such as Dell, Compaq and Toshiba to preload the necessary boards on certain models. Toshiba’s September launch of two new laptops set a significant precedent by supporting both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the same unit. The Tecra 9000 and Portege 4000 have an antenna catering for both standards built in.

Toshiba is likely to be followed by other laptop manufacturers in recognising that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are really jockeying for position in the market rather than ‘fighting it out to the death’, even if that is how it has seemed for the past 18 months.And there is one final card in the high-stakes wireless networking game. It is held by neither Bluetooth nor Wi-Fi, but by the mobile phone operators.

As GSM mobile phones give way to 2.5G and then 3G technologies, the telecoms giants who provide the services will want to connect their customers to the internet as a matter of course. In the UK, getting subscribers to use their mobiles for more than voice communications is essential if operators such as Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom are to recover the billions paid to the government to secure 3G licences. Wi-Fi in particular could be a thorn in the side of the mobile networks. Business users willing to pay a premium for internet and other data services are likely to have the chance to do so on their laptop computer via Wi-Fi long before 3G is up and running. If they can do that in their workplace, in conference centres, hotels and airports – all at fast data rates and independently of their mobile phones – 3G will face stiff competition for some of its most coveted users.

But most wireless analysts believe the world’s biggest electronics companies have spent too much money to allow any of these technologies to disappear without a fight.

Instead they will be hoping for three bites of the cherry. The 3G phone will allow you to send and receive data while roaming far and wide. The Wi-Fi laptop will offer you heavy-duty internet access at the airport or hotel. And Bluetooth will be the glue that connects it all together.

Sidebar: World Cup showcase for Wi-Fi technology

The Yokohama stadium in Japan will become the biggest showcase yet for Wi-Fi as well as football when it hosts the World Cup Final on 30 June this year.

In fact, when the photographers speed that image of Michael Owen scoring the winning goal in the final (hopefully!) back to their picture desks around the world, they will do so via a wireless LAN system that gives them instant access to the internet from the side of the pitch.

Wi-Fi LANs transmit data at speeds of 11Mbp/s and at a range of up to 100m, in many cases equalling the performance of the ethernet cables they were designed to replace.

By installing MagicLAN cards in their laptops to process images taken by a digital camera, the press corps will be able to use wireless ‘hot-spots’ located around the World Cup venues to transmit data back to the office within minutes.

As well as the estimated 15,000 journalists, Wi-Fi networks will also be used by Fifa to help manage the arrangements for the thousands of players and officials involved in the tournament – not to mention the estimated three million spectators expected to watch the 64 games live in Japan and Korea.

The wireless LANs in the World Cup stadia will form part of one of the biggest-ever purpose-built converged voice and data networks, commissioned by Fifa for the 2002 tournament. The network will, in fact, extend beyond the stadia themselves and into designated Fifa hotels.

Sidebar: Where are the gizmos?

Bluetooth transmits data at a range of up to 10m for most applications, with transfer speeds as high as 1Mbp/s. Crucially it can connect devices, not just with each other but with the internet via a base station, making the fabled central heating system that e-mails for its own mechanic when it goes wrong a realistic possibility.

However, for all the excitement it has generated in the wireless technology industry, Bluetooth is still a mystery to all but the most tech-savvy consumers.

Pioneers of the system such as Ericsson and Nokia have launched Bluetooth-enabled mobile handsets. But they sell at the upper end of the price range, and, with other Bluetooth devices thin on the ground, have looked rather like the Mexican who learned to speak Hungarian – very clever but with nobody to talk to.

From mid-2001, however, a trickle of other electronics products began to find their way to market, the number picking up further by the end of the year. A pointer as to how Bluetooth might change the way we use everyday devices came from Sony in October when it launched two camcorders equipped with the technology.

Sony’s PC120 and IP7 can connect directly to the internet via a Bluetooth mobile phone or a modem adapter, removing the need for a PC.

This allows recordings to be sent across the internet from almost anywhere – albeit at slow data transfer rates. Perhaps more significantly though, it also allows users to download data from the internet, effectively turning their camcorder’s viewing screen into a mobile browser on which they can read web pages and access e-mails.

At around £1,600 the Bluetooth camcorders are hardly budget purchases. But as the technology drops in price and broadband internet access becomes more widely available, such pioneer gizmos now seem likely to be seen as just the vanguard of an ever-growing number of Bluetooth-enabled products.