Bluetooth Product Roundup

by Reads (17,926)

Bluetooth isn’t simply about ridding the world of cables, according to Dave Curl, head of communications at TDK Systems. In fact, TDK’s B-Informed initiative, which aims to increase the enterprise uptake of Bluetooth solutions, proposes something more bold: that the primary benefit of Bluetooth will be to reduce so-called “employee dead time” by transforming their ordinary offices into highly-productive wireless worlds for accessing resources and facilitating communication — ubiquitous offices, so to speak.

And it’s not just office-bound workers that will benefit from Bluetooth. High-speed access to the Internet, accurate Outlook data and internal files from the company intranet via Bluetooth devices will enable road-warriors to make more effective business decisions wherever they are — from the office cafeteria to the backseat of a taxi.

According to TDK, Bluetooth’s easy, wireless connections can recover up to ten percent of a worker’s dead time, and increase general productivity, as well as reduce company costs when churning employees within the organization and when wiring new offices. This can result in huge savings for modern, flexible companies with ad-hoc team relationships and extremely mobile workers.

TDK insists there are many varied possible uses for Bluetooth in the office environment — from printers and wireless access points to peer-to-peer file sharing and instant messaging. But given Bluetooth’s problematic introduction and a number of high-profile teething problems, the lucrative enterprise market seems to have been reluctant thus far to adopt the technology.

TDK’s attempt at coaxing this wary market into looking differently at Bluetooth would result in nothing short of a revolution in working practices, where fully implemented. Mr. Curl concedes that it is trying to shift the focus of Bluetooth away from being simply a cool, new technology that tidies cable clutter or connects your fridge to your PC, to one which actually introduces new possibilities for business and actively increases productivity: “our overall strategy [is] to make Bluetooth do something useful.”

For those of us not involved in an enterprise environment, this change in focus still has large implications, if successful. Equipping a business with the technology encourages the employees to bring it home with them — their phone, laptop and PDA will probably not be the end of the move to Bluetooth, and this stimulates the take-up of the technology across a wider spectrum of society than technology enthusiasts.

In the vision of TDK Systems and the other members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the protocol is about seamless, practical usage, not “wow” factor — Mr. Curl summed this up as Bluetooth “exiting from its hype phase.” He admitted that his company was using a top-down approach, targeting its traditional enterprise market. However, in its OEM role of providing integrated desktop and phone solutions, among other products, TDK Systems is increasingly targeting the end consumer.

As I noted in my last article, What Ails Bluetooth?, without absolute certainty of seamless operation, businesses could see lost productivity and money in troubleshooting the setup, rather than the reverse. To this end, TDK Systems is coupling its initiative with software aids, such as configuration wizards. The Bluetooth SIG is, importantly, not an official standards organization (instead, they regulate and standardize the technical specifications and profiles to which the devices must adhere in order to be listed), and unlike 802.11b — which has already made important inroads in the enterprise market — not all devices are guaranteed to work together, as many users have found — partly through clunky software and partly through the profile system.

On the way are another 8 possible Bluetooth profiles this year, as well as two new faster versions of the technology (Medium Data Rate and High Data Rate, running at up to 10mbps) just emerging on the horizon. Mr. Curl recognizes that this could confuse both enterprises and consumers, but insists that the SIG is working very hard to clarify the whole situation among its 2500 companies and their 24 languages.

TDK Systems is doing its part by negotiating partnerships with Microsoft and Sony-Ericsson, the two companies from whom consumers are likely to receive their first dose of what is clearly “not a simple technology.” The challenge has been to make a reliable and simply end-user experience for a protocol that is more than twice as complicated as GSM. As the number of Bluetooth phones moves towards 25 million, and consumer uptake gains momentum (Mr. Curl notes that Bluetooth has a “viral working habit”), it will be essential to iron out all the interoperability issues between products.

The ultimate message, however, is a positive one. Mac OS X has Bluetooth support built in, and Windows soon will too. Linux support is progressing; car manufacturers are expressing interest, and more PCs are shipping with Bluetooth pre-installed. Partnerships and increasing communication between companies are taking the load off the confused consumer by providing more products that work — out of the box — to provide exciting and useful features: just the way it should be.

To see whether this dream is a reality, follow me over the next few days as I review some of the Bluetooth solutions available on the market today.

TDK Systems BluePAQ

Socket Bluetooth CompactFlash Card

Brainboxes Bluetooth CompactFlash Card

Brainboxes Bluetooth PC Card

Siemens blue2net Access Point

SimpleSMS

Christersson.org T68 PC Control

Well, even if you’ve managed to follow all of that, you might still need a little summary. Here’s what I found:

TDK Systems BluePAQ

Pros:
-Delightful form factor
-Easy installation
-Integration and simplicity
-LED

Cons:
-Can’t seem to receive connections or be polled for its services
-Not very flexible
-iPAQ specific

Brainboxes CF card

Pros:
-Very informative software
-Customizable
-Type I CF

Cons:
-A little cluttered
-Protruding aerial
-No LED

Brainboxes PC card

Pros:
-The best software here
-Very intuitive

Cons:
-Huge aerial
-No LED

Socket CF card

Pros:
-Works with PPC and desktop
-Comes with PCMCIA adaptor
-No aerial!
-Great PDA software
-Type I CF

Cons:
-Clunky desktop software
-Had some connection trouble with GPRS

SimpleSMS

Pros:
-Flexible connections
-Worked perfectly

Cons:
-No user folders

PC Control

Pros:
-Free
-Cool

Cons:
-Need an Ericsson mobile phone

Siemens blue2net

Pros:
-Cheapest in its field
-Great form factor
-Decent feature set
-Easy configuration

Cons:
-Limited applications
-If you have a problem, it’s not for newbies

It should be remembered that all the devices managed to install and pair with each other perfectly, so there’s not too much in it. However, I can make the following recommendations:

If you have an iPAQ, get the BluePAQ. Despite its software shortcomings, it does the important things — Activesync, dialup and SMS — very well, and you really can’t beat the form factor.

If you have a SilverSlider, or another PPC, the choice is harder. In form factor, the Socket has the definite edge, and it has the reputation edge too. However, the Brainboxes card did work very well.

For the laptop PC, the choice is between the Socket CF card and the Brainboxes PC card. The Brainboxes software was superior in user experience, but the large protruding aerial is a worry for me. The Socket card has the better form factor, and the versatility of working in the Pocket PC, but it is primarily designed for WinCE.

For a desktop, the only choice is the TDK USB dongle!

You may have noticed that I have not really discussed ranges in these reviews. My reasons for that are twofold: firstly, my house is not really suitable for scientific testing of wireless ranges. Secondly, Bluetooth is designed to be a Personal Area Network, so the devices are meant to be used in sight of each other, really. You are very likely to be in the same room as the other device you’re connecting to, and all the products here can easily handle that range.

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