Why Bluetooth Is Still a Pain

Bluetooth products have a certain cachet. They’re sexy and smart-looking, they’re small, and they can be fun to use. But supporting them from an enterprise IT perspective can be a real toothache and may require some significant extractions, or at least careful planning.

Bluetooth is short-range wireless, meaning it covers a range of about 25 feet. Its most popular implementation has been in hands-free headsets for cell phones, and indeed there are dozens of models to choose from, some of which are quite good. But if you want to do more than have a cute headset for your cell phone users, you’ll quickly find that there is no real standard. Sure, there are plenty of phrases that look like standards. Just take a look at this acronym soup:

  • A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile)
  • AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile)
  • BIP (Basic Imaging Profile)
  • OPP (Object Push Profile)
  • HSP (Headset Profile)
  • HFP (Hands-Free Profile)
  • GOEP (Generic Object Exchange Profile)

The problem is that not every Bluetooth product supports every profile. Moreover, some of them — like A2DP, which is used to send stereo sound to a headset — are still being worked on and are particularly problematic.

And that’s just the start of how hairy Bluetooth is. Some Bluetooth USB dongles — not to mention the built-in Bluetooth support in desktops and laptops — don’t support all the various profiles, so you could have a Bluetooth keyboard that doesn’t talk to your PC but a headset that does, with the same dongle. Or you have a Bluetooth keyboard that installs software that gets in the way of a Bluetooth headset because the two devices support different profiles. This isn’t yet a consumer-friendly place to be, let alone an enterprise-IT-friendly place.

The next challenge comes when you pair the same Bluetooth part with multiple devices, such as cell phones and computers, or you want to do more than have a remote headset. Then you have to rely on the PC makers’ different implementations of Bluetooth protocol support. On my year-old Dell laptop, the built-in Bluetooth adapter was almost worthless and could barely connect with anything. After looking at more than a dozen products, I found that many of them worked fine as long as I used the Bluetooth USB dongle that came with each product.

When I installed several different dongles on my PC — which you might want to do when testing a bunch of different products — the computer would get confused because the different Bluetooth support services step on one another. The support services also bury themselves deep in the Windows registry, which means getting rid of them would require difficult surgery in the registry, so I ended up reimaging my PC to restore it to its pristine state.

This isn’t yet for the general user, since the words “reimage your drive” may strike fear into their hearts. I recommend that you find a USB dongle that will support the widest collection of devices and stick with it as your corporate standard.

On some products, I tried four or five USB adapters that weren’t recognized. A Lexmark P450 photo printer didn’t even recognize one that was on the manufacturer’s recommended list. It was using a different firmware version, I guess. But I shouldn’t have to guess, and neither should your users.

The third problem with Bluetooth has to do with the miserable support for it in Microsoft’s Windows XP. And the situation isn’t much better with Mac OS and Linux. Many laptop makers have substituted support software from Widcomm/Broadcom or others because the built-in stack from Microsoft does so little and supports so few Bluetooth products.

So an obvious step here is to carefully test the various stacks and settle on one that you can deploy corporatewide. Some stacks come with USB dongles, so again, standardizing on the right combination can really help reduce your support burden.

You’ll have to experiment with various combinations of stacks, dongles and Bluetooth devices until you find the right mix.

In many respects, the state of Bluetooth today is akin to where Ethernet was back in 1990 or Wi-Fi around 1992: a series of incompatible technologies, poorly adopted protocols and different implementations that will conflict with one another when more than one thing is installed on the same PC.

I don’t want to paint all Bluetooth products with the same brush; there are some great products out there. I just don’t want to have to reimage my drive when I want to switch between them.

David Strom is a writer, editor, public speaker, blogging coach and consultant. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon