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Wireless World

Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

You've taken baby steps into the wireless world, with a remote control in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Now it's time to cut the digital umbilical completely. Want to surf the Internet and catch up with your e-mail while sitting in your backyard, or during your daily commute? We can do that. Have your handheld organizer automatically updated with your latest appointments, contacts and e-mail whenever you walk into the office? OK -- we can do that, too. And how about climbing into your car, cell phone tucked in your pocket, and using it as a hands-free phone while driving -- without stuffing the phone into a cradle or attaching a cable? Well, that's not ready quite yet, but the technology to make it happen in the near future is here today.

connected wherever you wander

The key technology here is something called Bluetooth (named after tenth-century Viking king Harald Bluetooth, in case that's ever a Final Jeopardy answer). Basically, Bluetooth is a standard for low-power radio transmitter/receivers (with roughly a 30-foot range) that speak the same digital language, paving the way for phones, PDAs, laptop and desktop computers, cameras, cars and more that can easily exchange information. In less high-falutin terms, it's a way to do what you'd now accomplish with cables, but without the cables.

Losing the cables can make a big difference. For instance, you could just carry your laptop computer to any old printer in your home or office and print a document. Sit at a conference table with a few folks carrying laptop computers and PDAs and share files with one another -- watch a PowerPoint presentation, for example, and save your own copy instead of furiously jotting down notes. Bluetooth also enables hands-free cell phone headsets that really work well for a change, and will power the cell phone/car phone combo mentioned above, as soon as the car manufacturers get their act together.

Bluetooth technology is likely to become widespread in the next few years, since supporters and codevelopers include everyone from Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia on the cell phone side to IBM, Intel and Microsoft. And the reason the technology hasn't already become widespread, given the three-year-long festival of hype surrounding it? Well, all the biggest names in digital are on board, and they all have their own axes to grind in pursuit of a "standard."

So what we have now is a nonstandard standard -- a lot of products that theoretically speak the same language, but have trouble understanding one another because each manufacturer uses a different idiosyncratic dialect.

One area where Bluetooth communication is already well established doesn't require mixing gear from different vendors -- making the connection between a cell phone and a wireless earpiece. If you buy a Bluetooth-equipped cell phone from Motorola along with a Motorola Bluetooth earpiece, for instance, you're going to have an excellent experience -- the sound is as clear as the proverbial bell and, if the phone has voice-dialing capability, you won't even have to pick it up to dial or answer an incoming call -- sweet! If you like the cell phone you already have, keep an eye on the folks at Plantronics (www.plantronics.com). Their M1500 Bluetooth headset, which sells for about $200, includes a small adapter that connects to a standard cellular headphone jack plus a comfortable over-the-ear headset -- the preproduction version I tested recently worked like a charm.

Letting computers communicate wirelessly with other devices -- laptops, PDAs, etc. -- is a work in progress, however. Each manufacturer of Bluetooth-enabled gear currently has to go through product compatibility testing, and most post the results on their Web site. If you let these listings be your guide, you can accomplish some neat technological tricks. Going beyond these lab-tested combinations has worked for me sometimes, but not consistently. For example, I'm carrying a Compaq iPaq 3870 Pocket PC handheld organizer, the first to ship with Bluetooth built in. I'm also using a Compaq notebook computer, the Evo N600c, outfitted with its optional Bluetooth MultiPort module. When the two devices are in the same room, they find each other and exchange information (appointments, contacts, incoming e-mail) automatically, and I feel like a Master of Technology. When I tried to convince the iPaq to converse with another laptop equipped with 3Com's Bluetooth adapter card, though, it was close but no cigar (so to speak).

Despite the technology's current limbo status, I'm a Bluetooth believer. Hewlett-Packard is now shipping a Bluetooth-equipped printer, and other companies are developing add-on devices that will let you add Bluetooth communication to existing printers. Laptops with built-in Bluetooth are now available, and car manufacturers are pursuing Bluetooth projects for upcoming model years. Respected industry analyst Tim Bajarin expects Bluetooth to make it into the mainstream in early 2003. "You will see more devices rolled out throughout the year," he explains. "But in projects I'm working on with cell phone vendors, handheld vendors and laptop manufacturers, the road map calls for all of their units to have Bluetooth built in starting in 2003." In the meantime, early adopters (myself included) can amaze their friends with the cool wireless tricks we can perform, as long as we buy carefully.

proven compatibility at why-not prices


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