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Microsoft to chew on Bluetooth

The giant is set to release a Windows XP update adding support for the hyped technology for wirelessly linking peripherals. But analysts note some gaps in the plan.

Microsoft is set to release a Windows XP update that adds support for Bluetooth, the much-hyped technology for wirelessly connecting peripherals.

The update is included with a new Bluetooth keyboard-mouse combination from Microsoft, scheduled to hit stores by early November. The package, unveiled Tuesday, will cost $159. The company will also offer a separate Bluetooth-enabled optical mouse for $89. The Bluetooth update for XP should be available soon for separate download from Microsoft's Web site as well.

Analysts, though, said the Redmond, Wash.-based computing giant's first Bluetooth implementation ignores one of the most important ways in which the technology can be used. They also said the company is playing catch-up with Apple Computer, which already offers Bluetooth in Mac OS X.

Bluetooth lets computers connect to peripherals, handhelds, cell phones and other portable devices without the use of cables. It differs from 802.11b, or "Wi-Fi," which is a wireless technology for linking PCs into a network. Market researcher IDC expects Bluetooth adoption to take off in 2003, with the market for Bluetooth components, such as chips and memory, reaching $2.6 billion in 2006. The market hit $76.6 million last year.

Analysts said Microsoft trails Apple, which added the technology to Mac OS X in August after beginning to offer Bluetooth support as a separate update in March.

Still, Mac users have few uses for Bluetooth, particularly because Apple delayed releasing one of the most important pieces of software supporting the technology. Apple in September released a beta, or testing, version of iSync, software that would let consumers synchronize data with Palm handhelds and Bluetooth-enabled phones. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company had expected to release the final version of iSync in September but didn't deliver.

Microsoft in late September released its Bluetooth update to manufacturers, with the expectation that Bluetooth support would appear on new PCs anywhere from three to six months later.

In a Tuesday press release touting its new Bluetooth peripherals, Microsoft positioned its support of the technology as a first.

"Microsoft has made some claims about being first, and they are first in a very narrow sense--as in the Bluetooth mouse and keyboard combo," said IDC Roger Kay. But "there is a Logitech pointer mouse, so there are other products out there."

Logitech's Presenter mouse, a $199 Bluetooth peripheral, works with Windows 98, Me, 2000 and XP. Microsoft's peripherals only work with the newest version of Windows. Although the company is adding Bluetooth to Windows XP, it is not expected to offer such updates for its older consumer operating systems.

"It's always an issue when you come out with something doesn't really have universal connectivity, especially for a very basic kind of product," NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker said of Microsoft's Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The oversight could be problematic for businesses using Windows 2000 that might want to take advantage of Microsoft peripherals or use Bluetooth technology with other devices.

Analysts also questioned Microsoft's limited selection of Bluetooth "profiles," which enable support for various devices and uses. The Bluetooth transceiver supplied with Microsoft's peripherals, for example, offers a small number of computer-to-device connection profiles, allowing for the use of keyboards, mice, printers or cell phones, among others.

At least in this first iteration of Bluetooth technology, Microsoft chose not to support what analysts expect to be one of the most important connection profiles, that allowing for the creation of a personal area network (PAN).

Using PAN, devices can create a network based on Internet protocol (IP), which lets machines linked in a network identify one another.

"With PAN support the devices can address each other and don't necessarily have to go through the PC," IDC's Kay said. For instance, a digital camera could transmit images directly to a printer over Bluetooth without being processed through the PC.

"Microsoft's long-term is strategy is routing everything through the PC (thus) making it more relevant," Kay said. "So they have a tendency not to support things that bypass the PC."

Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm said he found the software giant's position on PAN profile somewhat perplexing, "because Microsoft co-designed that one."

The range of a PAN would be limited to about 30 feet, but could let consumers do more with Bluetooth devices beyond the PC. When Microsoft eventually does add PAN support, the company doesn't plan to support the more open Bluetooth sync protocol, but will instead run everything through its proprietary ActiveSync technology.

"If they supported the Bluetooth sync protocol, that would be vendor independent," Helm said. "Why would they do that? They would rather lock people into their own sync protocols with ActiveSync."

Microsoft did not respond to requests for additional information on its Bluetooth strategy. A company representative said PAN support would be coming out a later time.