Bluetooth: Still Crazy After All These Years

I recall visiting PC Expo about 3 years ago and hearing that Bluetooth was the next big wireless technology. Today, Bluetooth is still, in many ways, the next big thing--exciting in its promise but still frustrating in its reality. After some early tests with the technology, I opted temporarily to pass on using it, but with the sudden influx of Bluetooth-capable devices at Casa de Thurrott in recent days, I thought I'd give it another shot.

If you're not familiar with Bluetooth, the technology is designed to wirelessly connect devices in what's often called a Personal Area Network (PAN). Bluetooth isn't a competitor for 802.11b, however: It offers only 1Mbps transfer speeds--in a best-case scenario--and short signal range. The product is instead best used as a low-bandwidth replacement for infrared (IR) or USB connections. Hardware makers are now releasing devices such as PDAs, printers, keyboards, mouse devices, and headsets that take advantage of Bluetooth, which isn't saddled with IR's line-of-sight limitation. Microsoft's recent release of a Bluetooth wireless desktop product, which includes a keyboard, mouse, and Bluetooth base station, will likely legitimize the technology, as will its inclusion in a variety of notebook and notebooklike computers.

Because of my participation in the Microsoft Mobility Tour (see for details), I'm currently working with four different Tablet PCs and two Pocket PC devices (of course, carting all this hardware around makes me extremely immobile). None of the Tablet PC devices I'm testing supports Bluetooth, which is odd, but both Pocket PCs do. And although connecting mobile devices for file transfers and other purposes might seem obvious, it didn't occur to me until a mildly humorous occurrence the night of our first stop on the tour, in San Francisco.

The night before the show, I had arranged all the Tablet PCs on my hotel room bed and was running through final presentation preparations. Suddenly, all the machines started squawking and beeping in a symphony of birdlike electronic sounds that was both amusing and annoying. As it turns out, all the Tablet PCs include IR support, and each device was locating and attempting to connect to the other IR-enabled devices it found nearby. After a few minutes of this nonsense, I separated the devices, but the moment stuck with me.

On the plane ride home, I was composing an article on one of the Tablet PCs when I noticed that the battery was running low. I desperately wanted to finish the article, but because it was stuck on the current Tablet PC, even the presence of another machine in my bag didn't seem like much help. And then I remembered the cacophony of sounds from the night before. I opened up another Tablet PC and positioned it next to the first device. A squawk and a beep later, I made the IR connection and transferred the file just before the battery died on the first machine. I went back to work on the new machine and finished the article. Victory.

But IR is limited and on the way out. So a week or so later, I decided to try using Bluetooth to wirelessly transfer data between two mobile devices. I wish I could say I had as much success with Bluetooth as I had with IR. Here's what I tried to do.

First, I tried to transfer data between a Bluetooth-enabled IBM ThinkPad notebook computer and a Hewlett-Packard (HP) iPAQ 5455 Pocket PC, which is the top-of-the-line model with integrated 802.11b, Bluetooth, fingerprint recognition security, and universal remote control capabilities. The IBM includes My Bluetooth Places, a central clearinghouse that lets you find compatible Bluetooth devices and control various configuration settings, such as security, discoverability, notifications, and file storage locations. The iPAQ has a Bluetooth settings control panel that lets you configure the technology (and turn it off, which is important on a battery-constrained device such as the iPAQ) and a Bluetooth Manager, which lets you configure connections with other devices. Using these tools, I was able to enable Bluetooth on both devices, find each device from the other device, and establish a partnership between the two devices. Using My Bluetooth Places, I was also able to transfer small files to the iPAQ--but large file transfers mysteriously failed. I'm still trying to figure out why.

I had even less success with using Bluetooth to wirelessly synchronize the iPAQ with the notebook computer. These days, most Pocket PC users use Microsoft ActiveSync over a USB connection to synchronize appointments, contacts, email, and files, but wouldn't wireless be great in this situation? ActiveSync is one of those incredibly frustrating applications--great when it works but difficult to troubleshoot when it doesn't. Although I had properly configured the software to use a particular COM port for synchronization, and both devices could "see" each other, ActiveSync refused to sync. So it was neither active nor in sync--and you probably see more humor in that than I did.

Ultimately, I'd love to see the realization of the Bluetooth dream: You bring your compatible Bluetooth devices--PDAs, phones, laptops--together in your home or office, and they silently synchronize automatically. Obviously, we're not at that point quite yet, and PCs will need to ship with integrated Bluetooth connectivity before this technology becomes pervasive. In the meantime, Bluetooth is still on a holding pattern, although I'm interested in the possibilities. And at the risk of feeling disappointed in my abilities once again, I have to ask: Is anyone using Bluetooth regularly to synchronize data between a PC and a portable, connected device? How well does the technology work for you?

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