ANAHEIM, Calif. Microsoft Corp. will not support Bluetooth in the next major version of Windows, executives said this week, portraying the technology as not ready for prime time. Nor will Windows XP, a version of the operating system aimed broadly at consumer and business users, adopt the emerging HomeRF wireless local-area network standard. XP instead will use 802.11, which company managers see as taking off rapidly.
"I don't think the maturity of Bluetooth technology is good enough to ship the bits when Windows XP is released," said Carl Stork, general manager of Microsoft's Windows division, speaking in an interview at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here. "We wouldn't want to ship something that doesn't work, and Bluetooth doesn't yet meet a certain quality level."
The lack of native Bluetooth support in Windows won't prevent PC, notebook and handheld-device makers from building Bluetooth-capable systems. But it will add complexity to the process and could open the door to a greater diversity of implementations. That, in turn, conjures the prospect of product incompatibility.
The news from Microsoft comes on the heels of a highly publicized flop at the recent CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany, when 100 Bluetooth transmitters equipped with the short-range radio technology failed to transform a convention hall into a wireless data network for visitors with palmtop computers.
The difficulty in what was billed as the largest demo of Bluetooth to date appeared to stem from the use of different versions of protocols and the high concentration of devices seeking access to one network.
The Bluetooth Special Interest Group rolled out a revised version 1.1 of the specification in early March.
"We were trying to give the public a demonstration using a technology in its infancy, with most modules at the prototype stage. That took guts," said Yuval Ben Ze'ev, chief executive officer of Brightcom Technologies Ltd. (Rosh Haayin, Israel), a Bluetooth chip and software developer.
With a range of about 10 meters and speeds limited to roughly 1 Mbit/second, Bluetooth initially is designed as a replacement for the rat's nest of cables that are used to connect handheld computers, PCs and cellular phones.
"Even if version 1.1 solves current issues it's pretty much immediately obvious Bluetooth is being stretched in ways not envisaged," said Paul Hollingworth, European marketing director for Altera Corp. (San Jose, Calif.).
Very few Bluetooth devices are actually ready for deployment and the format still seems to have some bugs in it, Microsoft's Stork said. "It looks like Bluetooth is not ready for prime time."
Lack of Windows support may not substantially harm the eventual rollout of Bluetooth, said Steve Andler, vice president of marketing for Toshiba America Information Systems, one of the largest notebook computer makers.
"Microsoft's decision is unfortunate, but it won't change anything," Andler said.
"It will require more resources for us to do our own software driver stacks, but we were going to do this anyway" for other operating systems.
Tassos Markas, director of multimedia at Atmel Corp. (San Jose), which makes Bluetooth silicon, agreed. "We develop our own software stacks for Bluetooth and work with customers who do as well," Markas said. "We've been very successful in the past with 802.11 without direct support from Windows."
But supporting Bluetooth involves more than device drivers. Because 802.11 uses the Internet Protocol (IP) for communications, it can rely on IP systems services in the operating system. Bluetooth, however, does not use IP, and thus must rely on application-level support for communications.
"The bottom line is there are still technical issues to be resolved with Bluetooth," said a spokesman for Conexant Systems Inc., which makes Bluetooth devices by virtue of its acquisition of Philsar.
Indeed, "There's still a lot of work to be done," said Martin Reynolds, vice president and research fellow for market research house Gartner Dataquest (San Jose). For Bluetooth to take off, he said, it must be implemented in all the equipment it is designed to link for less than the cost of the cables. "The cost for Bluetooth silicon has to come down to almost zero, and while there has been a lot of progress, we're not there yet." Reynolds expects to see Bluetooth deployments take off in about three to five years.
Another issue that must be considered is interference, since both Bluetooth and the 802.11b wireless LAN transmit in the 2.4-GHz band. "In theory the interference can be pretty bad," said Tom Siep, a member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments Inc.'s wireless communications business unit in Dallas. "But in practice it's not so bad."
Although having two antennas in close proximity can be a problem, Siep said that most users won't actually place the two systems next to each other. When interference does occur, it manifests itself as slower transmission rather than a broken connection. Users are already conditioned to accept this, Siep said. It's the same problem that occurs with analog modems that sometimes connect at 33 kbits/second and sometimes at 28 kbits/s, and Siep believes consumers will be willing to live with the same experience in their wireless networks.
Nonetheless, the IEEE has created a working group to wrestle with coexistence issues, because all signs point to a world with both 802.11b and Bluetooth. "There is a place for both formats," Siep said. "They should, and must, work together."
Siep is more optimistic than some about the future of Bluetooth, noting that several silicon vendors have products now, and some single-chip implementations are in the works. "I think Bluetooth is coming, this year," he said.
TI produces chips for both Bluetooth and wireless-Ethernet systems. And Siep was pleased to hear that Microsoft will incorporating 802.11b into Windows XP. "If the PC market embraces the technology, that means a lot more sockets for us," he said.
Stork left the door open to including Bluetooth in upcoming releases of Windows. "It can be turned on without a full OS release. We might include it in a Windows update," he said. However, Microsoft has a policy against adding new features in so-called service packs, intended as interim fixes between major annual releases of the operating system.
Wireless LAN gets nod
Along with the first use of Internet Explorer 6 and integrated digital audio capabilities, Windows XP will support the second generation of the wireless Ethernet standard, 802.11b, offering speeds of about 11 Mbits/s and a range of about 100 meters. Although the spec was completed only within the past few years, its rapid deployment caught the eye of Microsoft engineers.
"We thought it would take several years for the 802.11b format to catch on," said Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect for the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant. "We've been incredibly surprised by how quickly it has taken off."
Indeed, not only are there numerous products in the marketplace for creating 802.11b networks, the technology is also moving into the public space. Several major U.S. airports have installed data nodes so business travelers with an 802.11b networking card can link up to the Internet while waiting for their planes. Among them are Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York, and San Jose International Airport. Starbucks coffee shops also have the technology in some sites, and the WinHEC organizers even installed an 802.11b network here at the Anaheim Convention Center for the duration of the conference.
"We've made a fairly big bet on support for 802.11b," said Stork. He said Microsoft evaluated several wireless-networking formats before deciding on 802.11b, but the technology seems to be stable and demand is healthy. "Our corporate customers have been asking for this, and today it's pretty clear that 802.11b is the dominant format," Stork said.
With the technology included in the operating system, Stork said that 802.11b-equipped computers could automatically recognize the presence of a wireless-networking node, and then reconfigure themselves to communicate with that net. "You should be able to walk into any environment and the machine will self-configure so you can start working," he said.
Microsoft's corporate vision for the technology includes wireless Ethernet networking in both the home and the office, a view that until very recently would have been strongly challenged by Intel Corp. The microprocessor vendor had been pushing 802.11b networks in the corporate world and a less expensive and incompatible format, HomeRF, for the consumer world.
However, in recent weeks, Intel has reversed its position and now supports 802.11b for both the corporate and home environments. Since Intel was one of the main drivers for HomeRF, that decision that could mean the end of that technology, some industry watchers believe.
"The reason Intel turned away from HomeRF is because 802.11b has become so prevalent," said Reynolds of Dataquest. "Wireless Ethernet has come from behind to become a compelling low-end networking alternative."
On to 10 Mbits
Wireless Ethernet took off when the spec hit 11 Mbits/s, and HomeRF 2.0 could do the same when it comes out this summer at 10 Mbits/s (up from 1.6 Mbits/s), said Wayne Caswell, HomeRF marketing manager at Siemens. In addition, HomeRF supports multimedia such as voice, audio and video and, unlike 802.11b, has interference protection for home microwaves and cordless phones, he added.
Dataquest estimates that as many as 15 to 20 percent of U.S. businesses are using 802.11b networks today, and said the figure could jump to 50 percent by next year. By 2003, the company is predicting 50 percent penetration into public spaces, and in the following year Dataquest expects to see more than half the homes in the United States using wireless Ethernet.
The second beta version of Windows XP was made available at WinHEC, and was also placed on the Internet for downloading. It is scheduled for commercial release late this year or early in 2002, and is aimed at both the home user and the commercial space.
This will be an important step, since it will allow Microsoft to target two key markets with the same product. "This will be the most important release of Windows since Windows 95," said Gates.
Ian Camerson of Electronics Times, EE Times' sister paper in the United Kingdom, contributed to this story.