Switched On: For Bluetooth, icon or "I can't"

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|09.06.06

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Ross Rubin
September 6th, 2006
Switched On: For Bluetooth, icon or "I can't"

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

In July, I discussed the confusion that results when carriers disable Bluetooth capabilities, specifically OBEX and DUN, which were not the names of two New York City detectives on the '70s comedy Barney Miller. The column proposed that the Bluetooth Special Internet Group (SIG) step up efforts to ensure that a Bluetooth device is capable of what a consumer would expect it to do, and thus apply marketing pressure to the carriers.

That column led to a discussion with Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, who noted the range of capabilities that Bluetooth has acquired. For example, relatively few consumers are aware that their Bluetooth devices can print using the wireless technology or can stream stereo music using the A2DP profile. As a result, in June the SIG developed a set of five "experience icons" that cover five Bluetooth-enabled tasks -- printing, input, headset, transfer and music.

Among the most useful in terms of carrier tampering will be file transfer, which has been blocked in the past. There's no icon for dial-up networking yet, though. According to Foley, there is still more work to do on simplifying the use of a cell phone as an untethered modem.

While the introduction of the icons, which will be placed below the stylized Bluetooth "B" icon, will help savvy consumers better understand their devices capabilities, the SIG acknowledges that it will introduce a level of complexity. In the column on "True Bluetooth," I noted how the composite PlayforSure icon has led to confusion, but the Bluetooth SIG has it somewhat easier in that most of its functions are distinct. In contrast, PlaysForSure's composite logo, which devotes three lines in its icon to whether video can be obtained via subscription, rental or purchase, depends more on abstract business models.

On the other hand, with cell phones being such important devices to Bluetooth, the SIG must contend with carriers approving features that are already in cell phones. So, what happens, for example, if a manufacturer supports a Bluetooth feature that one network operator supports but another does not? In that case, according to Foley, the recommendation would be that the manufacturer's and supporting operator's Web site feature the appropriate icon while the operator that that does not support the feature omits that icon. Furthermore, there will likely be more icons to come. In addition to dial-up networking, future versions of Bluetooth based on ultra wideband technology would likely be able to stream video, leading to yet another icon.

So, the icons will raise awareness and possibly some confusion, but don't directly address the carrier disabling issue. However, there is good news on that front, according to Foley. Based on customer feedback pressure and a more enlightened business strategy that recognizes the value in consumers' relying more on their mobile phones, U.S. carriers should be stepping into line with their European counterparts and embracing the full functionality of Bluetooth as early as this fall. That's an experience we'll all be glad to share.

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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