Bluetooth comes of age

The wireless technology named after a Viking has been around since 1994. Now, with backing from Apple, it's set to be the next big thing, says Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online

Something happened last month that may mean one of the most talked-about technologies of the Nineties will start to be used widely: a niche computer company said it would offer some software for it. In other words, Apple Computer said that it would provide support for the Bluetooth wireless technology. Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, announced a set of driver software at the Macworld Tokyo conference, which became available at the start of this month.

You may have heard of Bluetooth, though it's more likely that you'll never have met anything that incorporates it. Named after a Viking king who preferred talking to fighting (that's why you've never heard of him before), Bluetooth is a short-range wireless networking standard, which in theory should make things like printer cables and links from mobile phones to PCs obsolete; you'd just connect to them wirelessly.

That's the theory. The reality is that although Bluetooth was mooted (by the mobile phone maker Ericsson) in 1994, and is backed by a consortium of nine major companies also including Nokia, Microsoft, IBM, Intel and Motorola, and has 2,000 companies involved in designing products or software for it, Bluetooth has not conquered much. It's been all talk, no do.

But now, Apple has come along, and announced that it thinks Bluetooth fits into one of the neat 2x2 matrices that Jobs seems to love. As he portrays it, you have the two possibilities for getting connected: wired and wireless. And two groups of things to connect to: networks, and peripherals. With wires, you use Ethernet for networks, and Firewire or USB for peripherals. Wirelessly, there's 802.11b (also known as WiFi) for networks – and Bluetooth for peripherals.

How can that make a difference? Hasn't Apple only got a fraction of the computer market? Yes, but the rest of the PC industry looks to what Apple does and follows. Apple's claims on its website that its Bluetooth driver means it is "living up to our reputation for being first to market with innovative technology you can actually use" aren't right – it's not the first to offer Bluetooth for a PC. Toshiba was ahead of it.

But it's symbolic. Once Apple incorporates a technology, that means it has found a way to make it easy to use. And when that happens, wider adoption can follow.

You don't have to look far for examples. In 1998, Jobs unveiled the first iMac. Besides being notable as an all-in-one computer, it used USB ports and dispensed with SCSI connectors and floppy drives. USB had been around for many months, but none of the PC manufacturers had been willing to break from the pack and offer it; there wasn't any demand. Nowadays, USB is standard on PCs and Apple machines, and you'll look a long time before finding a SCSI connector. (Floppy drives are more resistant – even though you can send a file over the Net as fast as you can fill a 1.4Mb floppy.) Ditto Firewire, the high-speed connection system, though Apple had the advantage of having helped define the standard.

Then in July 1999, Jobs unveiled the first iBook – and with it Apple's implementation of the 802.11b standard, which it calls "Airport", and which offers Ethernet-class connectivity of up to 11 megabits per second. Of course, all the other PC vendors knew about 802.11b. But Apple, by having its own niche of millions of users who will clamour for new things and drive product demand, could make the technology happen. The PC manufacturers, who have to scrimp and save every penny and cent, couldn't take the risk until someone else proved the demand for it.

Now, 802.11b is everywhere – so much so that it's being used to set up informal "neighbourhood networks" between houses. It is the biggest technology success of the past five years.

And so is it time for Bluetooth? It could be. If you ignore the cost of the chips (which will fall; and people are increasingly ready to pay for convenience in their computer use), then Bluetooth has only one problem to overcome: its wireless signal is in the same frequency range as 802.11b, and might interfere with it. Apple's release of the software presumably gets around this problem. Which means that the floodgates should be about to open for Bluetooth-enabled PDAs, cameras, video cameras, mobile phones, printers and computers. After nearly a decade of being the Next Big Thing, it might be the Big Thing itself.

Which only leaves us with one question: what's next?