Wireless wonder

Charles Arthur
Monday 16 September 2002 00:00
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One of the more profound and memorable comments in Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte's guide to the forthcoming digital world (only slightly delayed by bankruptcies, recession and telecoms monopolies) is that in the future, things that used to be sent via wires will be sent wirelessly, and vice versa.

The former already applies to phones, where mobiles have become second nature and the idea of being uncontactable just because you're going out sounds eccentric. The latter also applies: you can tune in to radio stations from around the world just by finding their website; if the software to listen to it directly isn't already on your machine, you'll be pointed to a download site, and within minutes you'll be tuned in to radio, transmitted over your phone line.

Wired to wireless isn't just happening to voice, though. The biggest improvement in my computing life in the past two years has been getting a Wi-Fi (802.11b) card, so I can take my laptop anywhere in or outside the house and get on the Ethernet-speed wireless link to my home modem. Chalk one up to Apple, which was the first to introduce Airport (as Apple branded it) in summer 1999, after which its use exploded in the Windows world too. It convinced me that wireless is the way forward for data. Look around any computer installation; what do you see? Stacks of self-entangling wires. Getting rid would be so nice.

So when the time came for me to buy a new mobile phone, there was one feature it had to have – Bluetooth. You should follow suit, because it's going to make organising your phone – which can now store not just numbers, but calendars, notepads, pictures and e-mail – so much easier.

You may have heard of Bluetooth already, but chances are it's just been a buzz-word asactual working implementations have been rare. It's a short-range (10 metres) wireless system that lets devices exchange data at 750kb per second – roughly the same as USB 1.1. The easiest way to picture it is that as Wi-Fi (802.11b, Airport) is to Ethernet, so Bluetooth is to USB. Same sort of devices, same functions: keyboards, mice, cameras, PDAs, phones, printers, headsets.

One of the first working Bluetooth implementations to cross my desk was a mouse from Logitech. It consists of a little dongle that goes into a USB port, and the mouse (wireless of course). What's neat is that unlike infrared wireless mice, this one doesn't require a line of sight to the USB port and, on Mac OS X at least, needed no extra software; just plug in and mouse away. Both buttons worked, too, the right-hand one giving context-sensitive menus.

Onward, to mobile phones. I plumped for the Sony Ericsson T68i, largely because there are plenty of modem scripts around that will let you dial it from a Mac. I also got a Bluetooth USB dongle (the D-Link adapter, available from Apple) to talk to it. If you want Bluetooth on Windows XP, Microsoft will offer a download later this year that builds in drivers for it; until then (and for earlier versions of Windows) you can hunt the Net for drivers for your product. It's worth doing research and scouring the discussion groups to ensure that your particular PC/OS/phone combo will work.

Getting your computer and phone to talk does require a little of the set-up dance we hate. First you have to persuade your computer to "discover" the phone, and "pair" the computer and phone (which may require passwords or passkeys, if you're using them on the phone). Once that's done, you're off and running. When someone does call, the mobile can tell your computer – which on OS X 10.2, flashes up an alert (if the number is in your address book, it'll tell you who) and offers to let you send them an SMS in reply. Or you can dial your phone without touching it, say to get internet access (using GPRS of course). Laptop plus Bluetooth mobile equals truly mobile internet access. It also equals faster battery drain, so don't indulge unnecessarily.

Bluetooth support isn't built in to Windows XP, because when that was being finalised last year Bluetooth wasn't quite ready as a standard. Apple, which has been updating OS X like mad, now builds in Bluetooth support, although Jon Rubenstein, its senior vice-president of hardware, told me last week that as a standard, "Bluetooth isn't quite cooked yet". Some of the "profiles" – the generic software drivers for classes of device – aren't finalised, or are changing. But they'll be in place next year.

Anyway, Rubenstein judged Bluetooth ready enough to risk using it in chief executive Steve Jobs's speech earlier in the day – a live demonstration of synchronising a set of contacts via Bluetooth to an empty T68i – and to show off dialling the phone via Bluetooth from the computer.

This contact and data synchronisation is what I'm really keen on. Modern phones can hold hundreds of contacts, and they're much more portable than a PDA. With a headset you can even read what's on the (colour) screen. I've done my time juggling my contacts on my phone; I'm faster with a keyboard. If Bluetooth saves me that effort alone, it's worth it. Even better, if your phone goes awol, you have your contacts stored on your PC, ready to sync up wirelessly with its replacement. Convenient? You bet. That's how I like my technology.

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