SAN FRANCISCO Bluetooth connectivity and 802.11 wireless LAN technology, seen of late as rivals, should instead be viewed as harmonious partners, according to participants in a Tuesday (Dec. 11) panel at the Bluetooth Developers' Conference.
Jeff Abramowitz, executive director of the Wireless LAN Alliance, set the panel's tone by rejecting the notion of a Bluetooth vs. 802.11 debate. In reality, he said, both technologies have their own applications and must coexist to provide end users with options, he said.
Pratik Mehta, senior LAN and Bluetooth technologist at Dell Computer Corp., agreed that the technologies to not present an "either or" selection. "End users need both connectivity and LANs," Mehta said. "They should not be required to choose."
The distinction between wireless LANs and Bluetooth connectivity has been a sticking point for the communication sector. From its early days, Bluetooth was seen as a means for providing wireless connectivity between a host of disparate devices, such as PDAs, cell phones, printers, and more. Wireless LAN technology, on the other hand, was engineered to provide a wireless equivalent to the Ethernet standards that have been used to network together offices and potentially homes.
While these technologies started down different paths, there is now quite a bit of overlap between them, which has brought the WLAN vs. Bluetooth debate to the fore among among the technologies' providers.
Mehta said the answer to the debate lies in the technologies' application. If an end user is looking to network a slew of systems together, for example, then 802.11 might be the better choice. But if the user is simply looking to add connectivity to a product, say linking a mobile phone to a wireless headset, then Bluetooth may be a better option, he said.
But the overlap is real. An end user trying to connect a laptop to a printer, for example, could use either 802.11 or Bluetooth as the connectivity option.
From the panel's perspective, the answer to the dilemma lies in providing a seamless wireless network that would allow wireless devices to roam between Bluetooth and 802.11 with ease. The goal is to build an environment where a PC or system can always be connected and the unit's operating system can switch between the Bluetooth and WLAN protocols as needed, said Mike Foley, wireless architect for Microsoft Corp. "If end users have to think," he said, "then it won't work."
The proposal could be complicated by the development of a scaled-down version of 802.11 a possibility weighed by several suppliers. That further raised the issue of price differences between Bluetooth and 802.11, said Eric Jansen, vice president of North America for Cambridge Silicon Radio. "Trying to strip a WLAN down is like hacking apart a tractor trailer so that it will fit in a garage," Jansen said. Bluetooth silicon solutions are approaching $5, a price seen as a trip point for wider sales, while 802.11b systems are still in the $30 range. Even a scaled-down version of 802.11 would have difficulty matching Bluetooth price points, Jansen said.
But some companies are nevertheless developing single-chip 802.11b solutions that could serve as connectivity devices, said WLANA's Abramowitz, who said he expects Bluetooth to remain a strong player.
Chip rollouts could also be an issue, panelists said. No specification is currently in place for a scaled-down 802.11, and it would take two years once a standard is settled to make chips and bring down their costs, they said. And over that span, Bluetooth chips will be available and deployed in the market, said Rajiv Kumar, chief technology officer of Widcomm Inc., a seller of Bluetooth solutions.
System designers will have to concern themselves with issues beyond the coexistence of Bluetooth and 802.11, however. Interference between Bluetooth devices in the same vicinity can also be a headache, Microsoft's Foley said. Designers must take a close look at the coexistence of the Bluetooth profiles that will make systems work, he said. Technologies like adaptive frequency hopping will be required to ensure that a Bluetooth radio will not interfere with another Bluetooth radio or WLAN radio, he said.
Robert Keenan is editor-in-chief of CommsDesign.com, an online sister publication of EE Times.