Bluetooth not at war with 802.11b, Ericsson says

Bluetooth technology is a year late to hit the market but is definitely not a loser to 802.11b wireless LANs, LM Ericsson Telephone Co. officials said Friday in Boston.

"We are complementary technologies," said Skip Bryan, global area manager for the Americas for Ericsson Technology Licensing, a division of Sweden-based Ericsson.

"There is no war" between 802.11b and Bluetooth, "so there is no war to to lose," Bryan added in comments during a session on Bluetooth at the Embedded Systems Conference.

Bryan said Bluetooth "is about a year late" to market.

Ericsson was the first to unveil a Bluetooth device, in November 1999 at Comdex in Las Vegas (see story). The device was a wireless headset to work with a cell phone.

Ericsson and eight other large companies that founded and supported the original Bluetooth Special Interest Group didn't anticipate the amount of interoperability testing needed between devices, Bryan said. Another cause of the delay is that chips to enable the devices have been too expensive for the hundreds of companies eager to install them. Ericsson officials said it costs $15 to $25 to enable a cell phone or laptop with Bluetooth hardware, but the cost needs to be about $5 for Bluetooth to catch on.

Bluetooth is wireless technology that works at about 10 meters and is designed primarily for the personal-area network between an individual's personal devices, such as a phone, handheld device, laptop, printer and fax. By contrast, analysts see 802.11b networks as designed for workgroups or other settings where wireless connections can be 100 meters or so apart.

The technology now known as Bluetooth was originally supposed to have a four-letter acronym as its name but instead was christened by two Ericsson engineers sitting in a bar who decided to name it after Viking King Harald Bluetooth, who united Nordic nations under one religion in the 10th century. "Go figure that," quipped Johan Akesson, manager of strategic marketing for Bluetooth at Ericsson.

Many see Bluetooth as a wireless technology primarily for consumers or employees who travel, while 802.11b might be easier to sell to workgroups and IT managers. Bryan and Akesson said the appeal of Bluetooth to IT managers will center on the traveling employees' needs. One application was designed to enable a person staying in a hotel to use a cell phone as an Internet connection, which in turn is connected wirelessly to a laptop via Bluetooth, helping the worker and his company avoid expensive hotel connection charges, Akesson said.

But 802.11b has clearly caught on faster in the U.S., which prompted one Intel Corp. official to declare at the Intel Developer Forum on Aug. 30 that Bluetooth "may end up winning, but right now isn't," according to various published reports at the time. Since that time, however, Intel officials have said that both technologies can work together and will show up in laptops together this fall.

Ericsson and Intel have probably spent the most on Bluetooth development of any of the hundreds of companies involved in the technology, according to analysts and Ericsson officials. About 175 Ericsson engineers work full time in Lund, Sweden, on Bluetooth, Akesson said. To have the two wireless technologies work side by side in a laptop, designers will have to put in protection that prevents one from canceling the other's radio signals, Bryan said. Without protections, the cancellations don't kill either signal, but slow down throughput significantly, he and others at Ericsson said. Research has shown, however, that when Bluetooth and 802.11b radios are 1 meter apart without any other protections, they both work fine.

Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said Bluetooth will "likely become pervasive as a cable replacement technology and will be integrated into billions of devices by 2007." It costs much more to implement 802.11b networks, but there is already "a large uptake of it in enterprises," he added.

Both Redman and Ken Dulaney, another Gartner analyst, agreed that the two technologies aren't competitive, despite press accounts showing there is a war or that they do compete. "They should not be put in the same bucket," Dulaney said.

By the time Bluetooth is widely available, many companies will have moved beyond the first version of 802.11b and over to 802.11a, a faster technology that will be even more different from Bluetooth, he said. Vendors building 802.11b and Bluetooth applications in one laptop "don't think interference is a big deal," Dulaney added.

The use of Bluetooth in industrial embedded applications was weighed last week by several IT managers and designers attending Ericsson's Bluetooth presentation in Boston. Gil Nolan, senior hardware engineer at Doble Engineering Co. in Watertown, Mass., said that Bluetooth could be used on power plant circuit breakers to signal interruptions. Because power grids outside of power plant buildings are built with concrete slab floors, it's hard to retrofit devices with cables and, instead, a short-range wireless device using Bluetooth could send a signal of a device problem a short distance to a relay device.

Cahner's In-Stat Group in Newton, Mass., has predicted a bright future for Bluetooth, estimating that about 650,000 mobile phones and 300,000 other types of handhelds will be equipped with Bluetooth by 2005.

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