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Bluetooth's future looking rosier

The wireless networking technology is starting to reach a critical mass, with a long list of products either on the market or ready to debut over the next year.

Bluetooth may finally be on the verge of a growth spurt.

The wireless networking technology--designed to replace cables that connect devices such as notebooks, handhelds and printers--is starting to reach a critical mass, with a long list of products either on the market or ready to debut over the next year, according to attendees at this week's Bluetooth Developers Conference in San Francisco.

"One of the things that really stuck me at the conference is now that it's becoming clear Bluetooth is going to appear in many...devices, (the manufacturers) have gone from a conservative, cautious mode to an expansive, inclusive mode," Dataquest analyst Stan Bruederle said Friday. That's "a big change in tone."

This isn't the first time that Bluetooth has been expected to burst onto the technology scene. Many industry watchers expected it to happen this year, but problems getting products to market and demand for 802.11b wireless networking technology has slowed its adoption.

Some industry insiders believe that the two technologies can coexist; others assert that the strong demand for 802.11b has already nullified Bluetooth's future.

Despite Bluetooth's slow start--the technology was originally launched in 1998--some analysts say shipments of Bluetooth chipsets in 2001 foretell of a future in which the technology is widely adopted.

Bluetooth's radio technology allows data to be transferred between devices that are up to 30 feet away from one another and at speeds up to 1mbps. Bluetooth proponents see it as eliminating the cables now required to transfer data, for example, between a laptop or handheld and a printer. The technology could also be used to send a photo from a digital camera to the Internet via a cell phone.

Market researcher Dataquest predicts that demand for Bluetooth this year will result in the shipment of about 4 million chipsets. The company

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Bluetooth conference showing teeth
Hari Sreenivasan, senior correspondent, CNET
predicts shipments will rise to 36 million in 2002 and 186 million in 2003.

An even more bullish forecast by Cahners In-Stat estimates that manufacturers will ship 13 million Bluetooth chipsets this year. Annual shipments are expected to rise to as many as 780 million units by 2005, the firm's research arm said in a recent report.

Still, those figures are lower than what Cahners predicted in the spring, when it said Bluetooth shipments would reach nearly 15 million this year and 955 million in 2005. And at this time last year, Cahners was even more optimistic, predicting shipments of 1.4 billion in 2005.

Cahners has blamed unexpected product delays and a slow economy for the need to revise its figures. Microsoft's decision to leave Bluetooth support out of its original version of the Windows XP operating system didn't help either.

But analysts assert that current forecasts are realistic.

"There's no question about it," Bruederle said. "The reason I agree with that is because there were many more companies at the conference this year that either had products on the market or who have very specific schedules for putting products on the market within the next year. Last year at the conference that was not the case. "

Among the PC makers adopting Bluetooth are IBM, Toshiba and MicronPC. These companies have designed products, such as IBM's A30 notebook or Toshiba's Tecra 9000 notebook, with built-in radios that support Bluetooth.

Most products including several notebooks, cell phones and handheld computers demonstrated at this week's conference weren't brand new. "But they establish a foundation for the growth of Bluetooth," Bruederle said.

Bluetooth also got a much-needed nod from Microsoft this week. Microsoft said it plans to offer Windows XP support for Bluetooth as soon as next summer.

Bluetooth is "coming of age," Tom Laemell, a Windows XP product manager, said this week. "By summer of 2002, we will make available a Bluetooth stack for Windows XP."

Many companies are also working to iron out compatibility issues between 802.11b and Bluetooth. The technologies share the same 2.4GHz radio frequency. As a result, certain techniques will be needed such as adaptive frequency hopping that ensures that the two technologies don't try to inhabit the same band at the same.

"We think that 2003 is going to be really the big year," Bruederle said.