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Bluetooth chews on future plans

Technical group outlines its wireless plans through 2006, updates current specification to trim power consumption.

A new version of the Bluetooth wireless specification and a three-year plan for more updates have backers hoping the technology will finally take off in the U.S. market.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a trade group based in Overland Park, Kan., on Monday published a road map through 2006 for its technology that lets computer peripherals, cell phones and other devices communicate wirelessly over short distances. The group also updated the specification to trim power consumption and facilitate multitasking.

"Bluetooth has seen great adoption in Europe, though it is still lagging in the United States," said Anders Edlund, marketing director of the Bluetooth SIG. "I think today's update will help quite a bit in the U.S. And the road map is confirmation that Bluetooth has a long-term plan and the technology will continue to evolve," he said.

Analysts attribute Bluetooth's European success to its penetration in the cell phone market there. Cell phone owners face strict laws against driving while holding a phone, and Bluetooth lets cell phones and car phones communicate wirelessly with headsets.

Now U.S. handset distributors are increasingly supporting Bluetooth, and technical trends reflected in Monday's update could make the technology more popular with computer and device manufacturers.

"I think the new specification and road map are very impressive," said Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Bluetooth is increasingly the type of solution that consumers need to connect and integrate the plethora of digital devices they're using, and today's developments indicate that these guys understand what the current limitations are."

The plans are posted on the group's members-only site. Registration for some levels of membership is free.

The Bluetooth group wants future versions of its specification to link high-bandwidth devices and applications, for example, streaming audio and multiplayer games. The group also plans to make Bluetooth work with consumer products like home security systems.

The group split its plans into three yearly sections through 2006.

For 2004, the SIG points to today's Bluetooth Version 2.0 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), which promises to increase data rates to 3 megabits per second (mbps) from 1mbps and decrease power consumption.

Next year, the group will continue to tackle security and privacy, the number of devices that can communicate at the same time, and power consumption--a key problem for battery-powered mobile devices.

In 2006, the specification is scheduled to support multicasting, or the ability to send a single message to several devices. That would let a CD player send music to multiple headphone sets, for example.

Another 2006 goal will increase Bluetooth's range to about 100 meters in some cases.

The Bluetooth SIG said three chipmakers--CSR, Broadcom and RF Micro Devices--have adopted the newly published Version 2.0 + EDR. The group expects products with those chips to hit the market in the next six to nine months.

Analysts stressed that Bluetooth needs to continue making inroads in the domestic cell phone market.

"The thing holding back Bluetooth adoption in the U.S. has been the lack of mobile phones that support it," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group. "The situation has improved in the past year, but there are still only a handful of cell phones that support it. Without the cell phones, Bluetooth is DOA."