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

bluetooth logoDuring the spring CTIA conference of 2005, a Switched On column expressed hope for Bluetooth. Bluetooth phones were becoming more broadly available in the US and headsets were becoming more affordable, trends that have continued. However, the potential of Bluetooth has been cut short by carriers that have disabled or "crippled" parts of it functionality. The two most common profiles that carriers have disabled are DUN (dial-up networking) which lets you use your Bluetooth handset as a wireless modem, and OBEX (object exchange), which lets you wirelessly trade files between your handset and PC.

DUN is generally disabled to prevent users from taking advantage of data plans intended for the kind of relatively light data usage patterns of a smartphone, whereas some carriers, like Verizon, for instance, disable OBEX to prevent circumventing cellular-based transfer services. While carriers have eased up on some of the profile disabling, the Sidekick 3, for example, supports only headset and file sharing functions.

Communicating Bluetooth compatibility has always offered a dilemma because the wireless technology encompasses several different benefits. Should the Bluetooth Special Interest Group go the route of the WiFi Alliance and offer one logo that might leave out details such as operating frequency, and speed or the PlaysForSure route and offer a confusing composite badge that details all the capabilities?

Be it via cost-cutting or carrier caprice, though, consumers are getting a warped idea of what Bluetooth is and what it can do. Putting aside newer features such as A2DP audio and EDR enhanced speed, the Bluetooth SIG needs to confront the issue of phones not supporting the expected features of DUN and OBEX -- features that could conceivably interfere with carrier revenue models. That's why it should reward carriers that support phones with these capabilities via a "True Bluetooth" certification.

"True Bluetooth" would tell consumers that a specific phone on a specific network offers the essential – if not full -- promise of what a Bluetooth phone should be. Promotion of "True Bluetooth" would be done via the handset manufacturers that have been most aggressive in supporting Bluetooth such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson. These companies are motivated to have carriers support the features that they've spent valuable development time engineering.

Carriers would also benefit from "True Bluetooth" as they would have a simple way to distinguish phones where they support features such as DUN from those that don't, and market the right handsets to advanced users who want to use these features without resorting to hacks. It's high time the Bluetooth SIG put some teeth back in Bluetooth with "True Bluetooth" -- the way to hold its standard to a higher one.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: Biting back for Bluetooth