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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Bluetooth: Next Big Wave in Electronics?

Companies Scramble to Use the Radio Technology to Link Computers, Gadgets

August 14, 2000|KAREN ALEXANDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the white-hot quest for the next big thing in personal electronics, the word on the lips of technology executives these days is "Bluetooth."

This soon-to-be-introduced wireless technology uses simple shortwave radio links to allow devices such as laptop computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants such as Palm, cameras and printers to communicate with one another over short distances.

As all these devices have surged in popularity, the tangled webs of wires and cables around desks have become an increasing frustration for consumers and manufacturers. Bluetooth has the potential to make most of those wires disappear, and with its promise of low-cost and nearly universal compatibility, big-name consumer electronics and chip makers are clambering aboard.

With Bluetooth radio connections, individuals will be able to form their own personal networks, using as many as eight electronic devices within about 33 feet of one another to exchange schedules and address book information, compete at video games, print documents, trade business cards or even access the Internet without plugging in.

Industry giants such as Nokia Corp., Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc., Microsoft Corp., Ericsson Mobile Communications, Motorola Inc., IBM Corp. and Toshiba Corp. are all readying Bluetooth devices.

One of the first gadgets is a wireless headset by Ericsson that links to a cell phone, expected to be ready for the holiday shopping season. The headset has a Bluetooth chip, so it can communicate with an Ericsson cell phone, enabling users to talk hands-free while driving or to walk around the kitchen and slice a pizza while staying in touch.

The other early products will be add-ons for existing devices, such as Bluetooth attachments that can establish radio connections to computers, hand-held data assistants and cell phones.

Motorola, Intel and IBM will soon offer PC cards and port accessories so that old laptops, printers and hand-held data assistants can have a new Bluetooth link, enabling them to share files without plugging in. The IBM PC card, expected by October, will cost under $200, the company said.

"Early Bluetooth products are more expensive. They will come down in price substantially over time," said Howard Dulany, marketing manager for wireless products at IBM.

IBM and Toshiba also plan to offer Bluetooth in upcoming computer models. Some of IBM's ThinkPad laptop computers will come with built-in Bluetooth technology by early next year.

Already more than 1,600 companies are developing devices and applications for Bluetooth, which was named for 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, best known for uniting Denmark with Norway.

The Bluetooth communications standard is being promoted by a consortium of firms, including Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Toshiba and IBM. To encourage its widespread adoption, it is available free to any company that wants to try to develop products or software that utilize it. And because Bluetooth operates in an unregulated part of the radio spectrum, there are virtually no government authorities to reckon with.

As with most new technologies, the value of Bluetooth will increase as it becomes more widely used. By 2005, about 1.4 billion Bluetooth products will be shipped, predicts market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group.

"It's a great concept, and everyone in the wireless industry is waiting . . . to find it in commercial products," said Alan Reiter of consulting firm Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md. "But technologists are often overly optimistic about how fast they can create products. If you want inter-operability, you have to get everyone in the room to agree" to use it.

Southland Firms Buy Into Technology

Still, the potential demand for Bluetooth devices has spurred Southern California companies to pay top dollar for entree into the Bluetooth market.

Chip maker Conexant Systems Inc. of Newport Beach paid about $117 million in April for Bluetooth developer Philsar Semiconductor Inc. of Ontario, Canada. And rival Broadcom Corp. quickly followed suit. In May and June, the Irvine maker of high-speed communications chips paid more than $1 billion for two companies, Pivotal Technologies Corp. of Pasadena and Innovent Systems Inc. of El Segundo, which develop Bluetooth semiconductors and software.

"Bluetooth cuts across a number of different market segments that are going to be increasingly important to people," said Broadcom Chief Executive Henry Nicholas III. "We see it as an extremely important means of distributing broadband throughout the home."

After Broadcom's second deal was announced, Nicholas boasted that Broadcom now had the largest engineering work force dedicated to Bluetooth in the world, nearly 100 people in all.

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