Bluetooth proponents next week will again try to convince an increasingly skeptical audience that interoperability and pricing issues will not derail the technology's deployment.
It appears the OEMs and their component suppliers converging in Monaco for the annual Bluetooth Congress have their work cut out for them.
Industry executives and analysts agree on the long-term prospects for Bluetooth wireless communication, but their ranks are riven by concerns about standards, unfulfilled expectations, and other teething problems that any new technology must overcome before gaining widespread acceptance.
"While there are some Bluetooth products available today, we're still in the pre-Bluetooth era," said Jack Quinn, an analyst at Micrologic Research Inc., Phoenix. "I think it will be a success, but it will take time to tweak the technology and make Bluetooth-enabled products generally available."
The challenge facing Bluetooth was evident this spring during the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany. Instead of showing how Bluetooth would transform wireless communications, a demonstration stumbled badly and led to negative reviews focusing on unreliable links and a generally unstable system.
The bad news was further underscored in the same month by Microsoft Corp.'s announcement that its next version of Windows would not support Bluetooth. However, while admitting that Bluetooth does face some short-term hurdles, many analysts said that it will eventually become a wireless staple that will represent a $4 billion-plus chip market in less than four years. That's up from an estimated $44 million this year.
"Many successful Bluetooth demos were not news and were not reported at CeBIT," said J. Eric Janson, vice president at Cambridge Silicon Radio Ltd. in Richardson, Texas. "[But the failed demo] is a good reminder to all not to rush products out there, but to take the time to thoroughly debug, test against others, debug, and test again."
The industry appears to have learned a valuable lesson from the CeBIT show. More than 40 OEMs have qualified Bluetooth products for rollout this year, including modules by top-tier PC and PDA makers such as Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Palm.
But questions remain regarding whether this year's products will perform as expected. For instance, will a purchaser of notebook X be able to successfully establish a wireless Bluetooth link during an off-site meeting with printer Y within 10 meters at a data rate of 720Kbits/s?
Cambridge Silicon's Janson said Bluetooth connections as in this hypothetical example would probably work, but users must have "reasonable" expectations about their reliability. "We've seen good [Bluetooth] interoperability with most prior- and new-code devices," he said. "The biggest [problems] are coming from a combination of companies and the many other devices to test against to assure that the code is robust."
A central forum for addressing interoperability issues is the monthly Bluetooth "Unplug Fest," where chip vendors, OEMs, and software developers meet to gauge the current performance level, industry sources said. For example, Bluetooth chips that will go into volume production this year will be based on Version 1.1 and should offer viable interoperability, they said.
"Bluetooth manufacturers claim they have tested their 1.1 designs with each other at the Bluetooth Unplug Fests, and they work," Quinn said. "There is no independent confirmation, but I believe them."
The 1.1 standard will incorporate the Piconet chip architecture capability, which will boost Bluetooth's connectivity, according to Scott Bibaud, director of Bluetooth marketing at Broadcom Corp. in Irvine, Calif.
"Piconet allows you to establish connections with up to seven devices," Bibaud said. "Previously, just connecting to one device was hardly any better than a wire connection."
The adoption of Bluetooth by top-tier, vertically integrated OEMs and chip makers could help resolve the standardization concerns slowing the technology's deployment, according to analysts.
IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., could lead in this area. The company has said it will offer a new Bluetooth module for ThinkPad notebooks this summer, which could help set Bluetooth as a standard, similar to what Apple Computer did for USB connections with its iMac, according to Richard F. Doherty, an analyst at The Envisioneering Group, Seaford, N.Y.
"IBM can offer common drivers, signaling rates, and protocols, so Bluetooth will see widespread adoption," Doherty said.
Michael G. Maas, director of marketing at IBM's wireless solutions division, said that while Bluetooth is especially standard-centric compared with other wireless technologies, it will eventually play an integral role in networks.
But Maas didn't want to put a specific timeline on when he thought Bluetooth will see a large-scale rollout.
"No one has a crystal ball, although it is something that everyone will have on the street, and you will definitely see a ramp over time," Maas said.
As volume production increases and process technologies improve, Bluetooth chip prices will drop roughly 20% over the next three years, hastening its adoption, according to analysts.
"If you consider laptops, the prices range from $1,000 to $3,500, so it's not too difficult to imagine Bluetooth fitting into all of them at a $5 to $10 initial price," Janson said. "But look at the Bluetooth mouse-there's no way you're going to price it acceptably, except for a few 'gotta have it' users, with anything over a $1.50 or $2 chip price for the Bluetooth function."