The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What's Up With Bluetooth?

I like to think that I understand the computer industry. Maybe I don't, but I like to think I do. I'm a software engineer. I read Slashdot every day. I talk to lots of people about computers -- both casual users as well as geeks such as myself. I think I've got some perspective on what people use their computers for, what they wish their computers could do, and where the industry is and should be going soon.

As such, I make predictions sometimes. The prediction I've believed in the most is that, some day, we will no longer use cables to connect peripherals to our computers. Rather, everything will be wireless. Buy a printer, set it next to your computer, turn it on, and you can print. Buy a keyboard, set it next to your computer, and you can type. Casual computer users have issues figuring out how to connect wired devices to their computers. What type of cable? Which port on the computer? Which port on the device? How long of a cable? Even the most knowledgable users seem to despise cables -- why can't I bring my keyboard into the living room? Why didn't my printer come with a required cable? Why do I have to help all of my casual computer-using friends set up their printer? A completely wireless set-up would benefit everyone.

Which is why I was completely excited when I first heard of Bluetooth, years ago. Bluetooth is a wireless standard. Any device that supports Bluetooth can connect to any computer that supports Bluetooth. No cables, no specialized wireless receivers, one standard method for connecting wireless devices. Bluetooth was exactly what I had predicted.

However, it seems that Bluetooth has had a lot of trouble truly taking off.

An example: I currently have a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse -- bought separately, because I like Logitech keyboards and Microsoft mice. So I have two wireless receivers sitting underneath my monitor. I am thinking of upgrading both soon, so I figured I could get a Bluetooth-compatible Logitech keyboard, and a Bluetooth-compatible Microsoft mouse, and connect them both through the same Bluetooth adapter. This solution is the very ideal (in my mind) of what Bluetooth can offer to the consumer. However, I could not actually find what I was looking for. Logitech offers no keyboards that support Bluetooth, other than in keyboard-mouse combinations. Even then, there are only two Bluetooth desktop sets available. Microsoft offers just one single mouse that supports Bluetooth, but this mouse is dated and doesn't seem to be readily available. Again, Microsoft has one keyboard-mouse combination that supports Bluetooth, but that is it. There are some notebook mice that use Bluetooth, but I want this for a desktop, so those are out. Logitech and Microsoft seem to have only mildly accepted the benefits of Bluetooth, and are pushing it into a niche market.

The same is true for most other devices. Bluetooth is intended to completely replace cables. However, I looked into connecting my still-relatively-new Canon iP6600D printer via Bluetooth. It is possible, but requires a ~$100 Bluetooth adapter, which is almost what I paid for the printer. Bluetooth headsets exist, but my research into them indicated that reliability under Windows is questionable. For other devices, such as scanners and webcams, Bluetooth compatibility is non-existant.

The only market where Bluetooth seems to really have taken off is the cell phone market. It is now quite normal for cell phones to support Bluetooth in order to allow for wireless headsets and connections to computers. This is nice, but to be honest I don't care about the cell phone market, and I think that if Bluetooth only takes off there, then we have completely wasted its potential.

Bluetooth has the ability to completely change the way we use computers, by making every peripheral wireless, and all wireless peripherals connecting through the same interface. For some reason unknown to me, the big hardware manufacturers, such as Microsoft and Logitech, seem to be ignoring the full potential of Bluetooth, while continuing to produce their own proprietary wireless devices. They obviously "get" that wireless is good, but can't see that wireless will never truly take off as long as every manufacturer has its own incompatible receivers and devices. It's nice to see that Bluetooth has taken off somewhere -- cell phones -- but this is only the surface of what is possible with Bluetooth.

A fully wireless computing environment is my dream, and I really believe in it, and in Bluetooth's ability to make it a reality. As consumers, we need to start demanding more and better Bluetooth devices from the manufacturers. I would say "vote with your wallet", but that's hard to do when the problem is that there aren't many Bluetooth devices to buy.

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