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Toshiba first to ship wireless notebook gear

A PC Card will allow the company's notebooks to link to other devices using the wireless technology, but the universe of appliances that can take advantage of Bluetooth will remain tiny for some time to come.

Toshiba will be able to claim some bragging rights over other PC makers when it offers the first Bluetooth option for notebooks later this month.

Around Sept. 25, Toshiba will begin shipping a Bluetooth wireless PC Card in the United States. It started selling the product in Japan last month.

The Bluetooth card will let notebook users connect without wires to cell phones and other devices enabled with the technology.

But bragging rights may be all Toshiba gets, as the universe of devices that can take advantage of Bluetooth will be virtually nonexistent for some time to come.

Still, the move is a watershed event for Bluetooth, a radio-frequency technology that simplifies wireless communications. With Bluetooth, a notebook does not need a wireless modem or independent wireless Internet account. Instead, data from the portable goes by radio waves to a cell phone, and it is the phone that transmits the data.

The technology is expected to lead to a boom in portable communications and peripheral devices. Because Bluetooth synchronizes with devices automatically, a notebook brought in proximity to a printer or handheld device, for example, could transmit data immediately without the need for wires and cables.

Cahners In-Stat Group forecasts that shipments of Bluetooth-enabled wireless communications devices will exceed 1 billion units by 2005.

But right now, the first of those Bluetooth devices are at least a quarter away, with many more likely to appear a year in the future.

"You won't really see handsets supporting Bluetooth before Q2," said Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds. "The first series of Bluetooth used for notebooks will be for (connecting to) cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants)."

Use of Bluetooth in PDAs and other handhelds "is probably more important than (in) cell phones in some ways. But we're a ways from seeing the products," he said.

Steven Andler, vice president of marketing for Toshiba's computer systems, agreed there is little that corporations or consumers can do right now with Bluetooth. "The facilities making it useful aren't there yet. It's kind of like selling the first fax machine," he said.

The takeoff point for the technology will be in the first quarter of 2001, he said.

Andler said two groups of buyers will jump on Bluetooth right away: early adopters and large corporations testing the technology. Enterprise testers will want three or four months of testing before they get integrated products, he said.

"Most of the first uses of the product will be peer to peer," connecting two or more notebooks, he said.

To help spur adoption, Toshiba is working with cellular handset makers to get Bluetooth into their devices. It also plans to sell branded handsets and other Bluetooth-enabled devices such as portable projectors and add-on cards for handhelds.

Next year, Toshiba will begin selling notebooks with integrated Bluetooth technology.

Toshiba's first-to-market position is not surprising, since the company is a founding member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. The consortium is responsible for setting standards by which Bluetooth products are developed and interoperability ensured. Other members include 3Com, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Motorola.

Rival IBM is not far behind. The Armonk, N.Y.-based PC maker last week said it will begin shipping its own Bluetooth PC Card, priced at $189, next month.

Toshiba's will be comparably priced, Andler said. "Everyone would like to sell these things for $100, but this just isn't going to happen right now."

In June, Motorola announced the first Bluetooth PC Card, which it developed jointly with IBM and Toshiba.

IBM's broad Bluetooth strategy is already evident in the company's portables. All new ThinkPad models feature a connector--or in IBM parlance, "Portofino" port--for attaching external devices such as Bluetooth transmitters.

IBM also has big plans for Bluetooth in its WorkPad, a version of Palm's handheld. Toshiba does not sell a branded handheld in the United States but does offer one in Japan.

While Toshiba ramps up Bluetooth, it also plans other changes to its notebook line. Starting next year, Ethernet will be a standard feature on most models. Toshiba is also investing heavily in another hot wireless technology, IEEE 802.11B, which allows untethered movement of notebooks connected to computer networks or the Internet.

Toshiba offers wireless LAN PC Cards from 3Com and others but plans a branded product later this year.

Dell Computer and IBM expect to offer integrated wireless networking in notebooks later this year, while trendsetter Apple Computer's Mac notebooks have packed integrated wireless networking capabilities for more than a year.