LAS VEGAS (ChipWire/EBN) -- Prospects for a speedy market entrance for the Bluetooth wireless-communications standard dimmed considerably last week as suppliers at two venues half a world apart reported lingering compatibility issues.
Designed to allow portable electronic devices such as cell phones and handheld PCs to communicate over a short-haul, 1-Mbit/second network, Bluetooth will now almost certainly miss the late-1999 market window chip makers had set for it.
Some vendors claimed that Bluetooth is suffering from a lack of common technological ground among the various RF chips in the market. Others blamed their troubles on software, which is being asked to support a range of new and different operating systems geared to handheld devices.
"There are a pile of people working on Bluetooth, but the bottom line is that we have a long way to go before we'll see interoperable products on the market," said analyst Kenneth Taylor of Kenneth Taylor & Associates Inc. of Medford, Ore.
At what the industry billed as an "Unplugged Fest" last week in Nice, France, chip makers and OEMs conducted the first interoperability tests of Bluetooth, which is aimed at replacing existing IR technology while creating a market for networked devices in the home. Results of the event were not disclosed to the public. However, supporters of the technology were bracing themselves for the worst, a sentiment in evidence here at last week's Fall Comdex show.
"I don't think you will see [Bluetooth-compliant products] this year," said Dwight Decker, chairman and chief executive of Conexant Systems Inc. of Newport Beach, Calif., which is working on RF chips and other devices for Bluetooth applications. "I think there are a lot of glitches with the technology, so I don't think you'll see [Bluetooth] until the second half of next year."
Still, OEMs and chip makers at Comdex moved full speed ahead with a flurry of product announcements and alliances. Many promised to ship their products by mid-2000. Some have already begun sampling parts -- even if they do not communicate with other ICs on the market.
However, as one exhibitor displaying its wares here noted, the issue of interoperability is so fundamental to the success of the Bluetooth zstandard that its absence could throw a wrench into the widespread adoption of the technology by mass markets.
"The bottleneck is not in manufacturing, but with interoperability," said Steve Wylie, OEM sales manager at TDK Systems Europe Ltd. in Berkshire, England. "The [RF chips] are ready, but they are not interoperable with each other."
That fact did not prevent TDK Systems from rolling out a line of Bluetooth-enabled PC Cards for notebook computers. The cards, which will begin shipping by next June, use an RF chip from Silicon Wave Inc. of San Diego and are expected to sell for about $100.
RF chip makers, whose components will drive much of the Bluetooth hardware, generally blamed the technology's problems on the software side of the house. Airing a cautious view, Kjell Westerlund, technical sales manager at Ericsson Components, said the interoperability tests in France were compromised by a proliferation of software supporting different portable electronic devices.
"We would be surprised if it worked the first time," Westerlund said. "We don't think it's a hardware issue; it's a software issue. The software-protocol stack is very complex [because] we have to support a multitude of operating systems."
Nevertheless, Ericsson Components, based in Richardson, Tex. and a subsidiary of Swedish cell-phone giant L.M. Ericsson, began sampling a two-chip Bluetooth device earlier this year that consists of a controller and an RF component. Ericsson is being joined by a slew of other RF-chip makers rushing their products to market, including Conexant, Lucent, Mitel, National Semiconductor, and Philips.
But despite the assurances of chip makers, analysts said Bluetooth's design hurdles are not exclusive to the software industry. "RF-chip design is very difficult," Taylor said. "I think it's difficult to make one RF device identical with another."
Developed last year by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (BSIG), which is composed of Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba, the first specification was only recently hammered out to define data exchange between handheld devices over a short-haul, 2.4-GHz wireless network.
Despite its youth, the market for Bluetooth chips is projected to grow to 260 million units by 2003, according to Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. The research firm added that worldwide sales could surpass $3 billion by 2005.
While Bluetooth is ostensibly geared toward replacing IR technology, the protocol has been billed by some as a home-networking solution -- a market in which several wireless and LAN-based technologies are vying for dominance. "There's going to be a lot of competition in this market," Taylor said.