Bluetooth: Not Dead Yet, but Not Looking Good

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Among the avalanche of information pouring out of CTIA 2005 comes this piece in Engadget that suggests Bluetooth is blossoming.

Respects to Ross Rubin, who I think is a very switched-on and entertaining writer, this comes across as a badly disguised piece of sponsored PR dreck from the heart of the Bluetooth SIG. The entry is long on declaration (“CTIA made a convincing case that this is Bluetooth’s moment to shine”) and very short on supporting evidence. Wow – half a dozen high-end phones have Bluetooth, there are some Bluetooth enabled GPS devices, a couple of peripherals, and an MIT-designed Bluetooth stuffed animal.

WIth respect, this is the sort of uptake and support that befits a new technology, not one that’s been around for several years. Ross makes the point in the article that Bluetooth is hardly ubiquitous, and he’s right. It may not be a novelty, but if it isn’t ubiquitous now, it never will be. There are a lot of little reasons for this, but to me, there are really only three that matter:

1. Muddled Positioning: The industry is still operating under the misconception that Bluetooth would act as what Ross calls an “Internet Gateway” for personal area networks. I’m sorry – isn’t that what WiFi does? My understanding of Bluetooth was that it would replace the serial cable, IRdA, and other hookups between devices, accessories, and peripherals, NOT create an Internet hookup. If the industry hasn’t figured out the positioning of the Bluetooth relative to the other technologies out there, how are users to understand how to use it?

2. Unclear Value: Following on from the positioning problem, neither the Bluetooth SIG nor the industry has made sufficiently clear the advantages of using Bluetooth to your average. What IS a personal area network, and how does making it wireless make my life better. By failing to communicate the basic, simple advantages of eliminating half of the cords in ones laptop bag or on ones desktop, the SIG and manufacturers have insured that mainstream users cannot but fail to get it, and visionaries – who understand the value of the technology – think that because it’s not being pushed, maybe the technology doesn’t live up to its promise.

3. Impending Obsolescence: The standards groups around what has been called Ultra Wideband (UWB) and is now being called Wireless USB are just coalescing, and we are certainly some ways away from real product. But the positioning – starting with the new name – has begun in earnest, and the advantages are clear – eliminate your USB wires. Period. Awesome. Fast. Cool. I’m there. And thanks very much, Bluetooth, but I’m waiting.

Nowhere are these failures more a pity than in Asia, where consumers have proven willing to experiment with these kinds of technologies and implement them into their lifestyles, and where the mobile phone plays a role far greater than anywhere else in the world.

Ericsson did a great thing creating Bluetooth, and it has given a lot of us a chance to tinker and play with he idea of unplugging cables. Unfortunately, it’s really clear that Bluetooth has fallen into Gordon Moore’s chasm and will eventually land in the Graveyard of Technologies with Unrealized Potential.