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Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Bluetooth still waiting for superstardom

WIRELESS STANDARD Developers expected billions of Bluetooth products to be in homes and cars by now, but the leap into automobile applications just gotten started


The film Almost Famous is about the adventures of a reporter and a rock band, but the title works just as well to sum up the track record of the wireless communications technology known as Bluetooth.

Named for the 10th-century warrior king who united Denmark and Norway, Bluetooth is a design standard in place for power-conserving electronic devices that transmit modest amounts of data over short distances.

Developers of the standard, a group of communications giants led by companies including Ericsson of Sweden, Nokia of Finland and Intel, expected billions of Bluetooth products to be in homes and cars by now. The success has been more modest, partly because of delays in ironing out details and partly because of competition from other wireless standards.

Still, Bluetooth is making the leap into the automobile, enabling a driver to place hands-free calls from a personal cellphone -- even one tucked away in a purse -- using the speakers of the car's sound system and the built-in microphones that serve voice-controlled navigation systems. Some models allow numbers stored in a mobile phone to be copied to the car's system using the Bluetooth link.

Tens of millions of consumers already rely on Bluetooth technology to synchronize hand-held computers with desktop systems or to enter data from wireless keyboards. And Bluetooth dominates communications between headsets and cellphones carried in a pocket or on a belt.

The growth of Bluetooth in automobiles has come as more than 30 North American models from companies including BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda and Toyota have made it available as standard or optional equipment, said Frank Viquez, a wireless technology analyst at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, New York.

Bluetooth is expected to be available in as many as 15 additional models next year.

"We estimate that, globally, 22 million cars will come from the factory fitted with Bluetooth by 2008," Viquez said.

By then, car owners and passengers may be using Bluetooth to connect laptop computers and other devices to display screens in their cars for games or entertainment -- wirelessly, of course. Bluetooth gear may also reduce the need for other wired connections, saving weight and adding design flexibility. And Bluetooth may link with sensors in the car for reporting of developing mechanical or electronic problems.

Such applications may make sense even though energy-saving benefits of Bluetooth are not as crucial in cars as they are in the world of hand-held electronics.

What counts in automotive applications is Bluetooth's attention to highly reliable communications within a 9m radius. Bluetooth gear would not be able to cope well with the huge data demands and longer signal distances needed to operate features like collision avoidance systems, but the extremities of even the largest Hummer are well within its reach.

Bluetooth devices operate in the unregulated 2.4-gigahertz part of the radio spectrum, which is also used by microwave ovens, cordless phones and garage-door openers. But radio components designed to the Bluetooth standard avoid interference and provide security by chopping data into tiny packets and hopping among 79 frequencies within the spectrum 1,600 times a second as they transmit the data packets.

Engineers who might have been interested in Bluetooth five years ago are today gravitating to Wi-Fi as a better platform for tasks which require large amounts of data to be transferred, including connecting to the Internet.

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