bluetooth logoEach week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

For years, many have been predicting the death of Bluetooth, the underachieving technology that served as the slow and ungainly Stephen Baldwin to brother WiFi's Alec. After WiFi achieved great success, Bluetooth was spun as a technology for simple "cable replacement" (as opposed to wireless technologies that don't replace cables?).

Since it had its roots in the cell phone industry, it was expected that Bluetooth phones would flood the market, creating millions of "wireless hubs" that would host a range of connected devices and offering a gateway to the Internet for even more millions of products without cellular radios. But the hubs were slow to come. Without those phones, there weren't many compelling reasons to support Bluetooth.


Still, Bluetooth stuck around in the States, partly because of the global supply concerns of American technology companies. Bluetooth became more popular in PDAs and an option in laptops. A few printers came to market with the technology. Nokia conceptualized some Bluetooth-powered digital imaging accessories. Bluetooth headsets became less expensive (although even today they still make the wearer look like a Borg-in-training). Nevertheless, without the cell phones, it all rang hollow � these spokes didn�t have a central connection.

While the CTIA 2005 conference in New Orleans was certainly no coming-out party for Bluetooth, the technology was as easy to find as bare breasts on Bourbon Street. In addition to the considerable variety of Bluetooth headsets available now (including prototypes embedded into sunglasses and motorcycle helmets), the first stereo Bluetooth headphones are coming into the market. These should be aided by the faster version of the standard, already supported by Apple in its PowerBooks. Bluetooth GPS receivers turn handhelds into car navigation systems and factory-installed hands-free systems continue to slowly march their way into vehicles.

Bluetooth squirrel On the more adventurous front, TomTom, the European company rethinking GPS navigation, will turn the next generation of its portable TomTom Go systems into �hands-free� kits using Bluetooth. Pentax previewed a Bluetooth version of its mobile printer and Logitech showed a Bluetooth version of its io digital pen. And in what was surely the most novel Bluetooth product on the CTIA show floor, MIT Media Lab representatives were showing a Bluetooth-enabled plush squirrel that �wakes up� while your electronic agent notifies recipients on your unavailability. Thankfully, the plush animal did not wear an �I�m NUTS about Bluetooth!� t-shirt.

Most importantly, Bluetooth phones are becoming less of a novelty, increasingly showing up in phones that consumers actually want. While the connectivity feature is still far from ubiquitous, stylish handsets such as the Motorola RAZR, SLVR, and A630 support Bluetooth as do data crunchers such as the Treo 650 and several BlackBerry models. Nokia is releasing more GSM Bluetooth handsets and of course Bluetooth has finally come to CDMA carriers Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS.

CTIA made a convincing case that this is Bluetooth�s moment to shine although its most promising application � acting as a wireless Internet gateway for other intelligent devices on a personal area network � hasn�t come to fruition. Part of this has been due to the rapid improvements in smartphones that obviate the need, and part has been due to lack of demand and the simplicity that comes with a single device. Still, the applications exist, the wireless data networks are getting faster, and increased adoption means that the Bluetooth ecosystem is on the cusp of filling in its long-vacant hub.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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