Watch the tv ads, read the business pages, talk to a tech salesman, and the message comes through clearly: the world is going wireless. A large portion of the populace, the line goes, is a prisoner of its own technology, tied down, held back. Wireless will set the people free.
But what, exactly, does "wireless" mean? There are many different kinds of wires; it would make sense if there were many different kinds of wirelessness. That, in fact, is the case. The satellites of cell phone companies replace the undulating cables that were once strung on telephone poles all across the countryside. Devices like Apple's Airport create wireless computer networks, and replace all the hubs, switches, and Ethernet cables usually needed.
But there are dozens of other wires cluttering up our lives: the one connecting the keyboard and the mouse; the ones between a PC and a printer, modem, scanner, or other peripheral; and even the wispy filaments that connect a home stereo to its speakers. Want to throw all those wires into the scrapheap? Some clever Swedes have devised a way to do it.
THE BLUETOOTH BOYS
Bluetooth is a standard for transmitting small bits of information over short distances (usually, about 10 meters). It's not meant to connect people on opposite sides of the globe or hook a PC wirelessly into a network at super-high speeds. But its supporters say it can do just about everything else.
The companies behind Bluetooth -- primarily wireless veterans like Ericsson but also traditional PC players such as Intel -- wanted to devise a way for just about any manufacturer's device to communicate wirelessly with any other's. "Bluetooth" is an evocative name for what is basically a set of data transmission rules that is monitored by a self-appointed bureaucracy. (By contrast, the snappy name given to the now widely accepted wireless Ethernet standard, 802.11, sounds like a George Lucas character that never left the drawing board.)
Bluetooth, on the other hand, is named after Harald Blåtand, the Viking king who brought Christianity to Scandinavia and united Denmark and Norway. The Swedish engineers that dreamed up the standard apparently felt they were serving a similar unifying purpose.
Because Bluetooth transmitters don't use much power, they don't need to be much bigger than a dime, and manufacturers should easily be able to build them into all sorts of devices, from laptops down to wristwatches. Each transmitter will always be listening for others in the area. So your PDA could automatically sync with a PC as soon as you walk in the room. Or, perhaps, the music playing on that portable MP3 player might spontaneously start piping through the patio sound system.
One proposed application shows how these new devices might interact with the rest of the wireless world. When a cell phone senses its owner is at home, it could operate like a standard cordless and route all calls through the normal long distance and local carriers. At work, outgoing calls would be billed to the company, and those within the office would cost nothing, because the phones would operate essentially as walkie-talkies.
AN IMMINENT VIKING INVASION?
Getting many large companies to act in concert is never an easy task, and the rollout of Bluetooth-enabled devices has been repeatedly announced as imminent, and has then been delayed. It's been ballyhooed as The Next Big Thing and dismissed as the ultimate vaporware (the industry term for a technology that is long-promised but never delivered). Questions have been raised about its security, its susceptibility to interference, and that the fact that the frequencies it uses may be dangerously close to those of other wireless standards.
Now the Bluetooth invasion appears to be scheduled for the first months of the New Year. Even then, it could take years until the majority of devices in use include it. Still, a slow pace isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it lets manufacturers work out the kinks and gives early adopters a chance to discover how it really should be used.
The wireless world is coming -- just not yet.