A fish with a bicycle.
kitten   September 6, 2004

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that was developed in order to provide a short-range, two-way communication standard between devices that need to communicate in some way -- to exchange data, to send audio signals, and so forth. It was developed by Ericsson as a means to connect mobile phones and their "accessories" (a headset) without wires, and was leapt upon by drooling technofetishists the world over, despite its limited application set.

Bluetooth is essentially a solution looking for a problem -- a mildly interesting toy and a cool way to get things done, but a solution that fails to address any real-world situations. It is, in short, a technology developed just for the sake of developing something new. Far from being universally adopted and failing to live up to its expectations of providing vast numbers of interconnected devices with a standard, Bluetooth is the shiny chrome hubcap on the otherwise normal vehicle of the digital -- kind of cool and all, but really, what's the point?

At home.
Bluetooth has been shoehorned into a number of home consumer devices. Companies are able to use the protocol as something of a marketing gimmick; "Bluetooth enabled" sounds much more impressive to the gadget-oriented alpha male than "wireless", and so he rushes out to buy his Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, a Bluetooth digital camera, Bluetooth computer speakers, with dreams of living in a wireless world, seamlesssly integrated into a single standard of communication among his myraid devices.

But wireless technologies for these devices already exists. The keyboard and mouse on my desktop are both wireless, using a simple RF receiver which sits unobtrusively on my computer case and functions flawlessly. Wireless speakers have been around for ages, and as they dont' need to talk to anything else, having them "integrated" into a Bluetooth standard doesn't provide much benefit.

What the must-have man quickly realizes after purchasing Bluetooth devices is that, far from being a life-simplifying, easy-to-implement, and highly adaptable technology, it is an unimaginble hassle to set up and, when it is finally working properly, doesn't do much that wasn't already being done.

Take this man's example. With sparkles in his eyes, he rushed out to buy the latest and greatest Bluetooth products, eager to see what new and impressive things he could do with it.

So now I had my Bluetooth adapter. So what could I do with it? Well, supposedly I could synchronize my phone and my iPAQ with Outlook over it as well as edit phone settings and downloading SMSes. Furthermore I should've had the ability to send files to the phone. Do you think I could get anything to work?

Besides the fact that these are things most people will never do nor have any desire to do, he discovered that getting Bluetooth to actually do any of this was a difficult and time-consuming process. After fiddling with drivers, uninstalling and reinstalling software, making several calls to the company's tech support, and other such headaches, he was finally able to get everything up and running. Success at last -- he can now syncronize his truckload of mostly-silly gadgets, not that he really needs to.
So now I could synchronize stuff. Woopee do, I could do that already over infrared. How about some cool stuff? I mean, Bluetooth is meant to be a 1mbps connection right? I should be able to watch videos and listen to music over it right? Wrong.

As noted, Bluetooth fails to address any real-world problems that weren't already being handled by other means -- other means that are simpler, easier to implement, and more universal.

Our man then takes another full page to explain how to get network access going through Bluetooth, that miracle technology that was supposed to simplify communication.

Okay this is a really big problem. I mean, huge. I struggled with this for ages and ages. If it wasn't the software it was some stupid setup issue which you never would've thought of. I'll go through the exact steps I did. Otherwise, when you try and connect network access to your iPAQ, it is likely to display "authenticating" forever and not actually connect.

After dozens of steps involving playing with unhappy network mapping, incompatible file formats, conversions, low bitrates, power requirements, and other hassles, he was finally able to stream music from his desktop computer to his iPaq and back. Thank you, Bluetooth, for making this miracle possible. (Streaming video, by the way, proved to be an impossible task, no matter the grandiose claims of Bluetooth's 1mbit speed.)

Syncronization of data is oft-touted as the problem Bluetooth can help solve in the home, but when we examine the rationale behind this explanation, it seems little more than a flimsy pretext:

[Using a cable is] a technique that makes the PDA a valuable tool for many people, but synchronizing the PDA with the computer and making sure you have the correct cable or cradle to connect the two can be a real hassle.

A "hassle", I suppose, if you can't keep track of the included USB cable that comes with most such devices, or if you can't find another USB cable around. Plugging devices in may not be as cool as being able to do it wirelessly, but how much of a hassle are we really talking about, compared to the headache described above? Almost every computer has USB functionality -- no Bluetooth adapters needed, no drivers necessary, no screwing with network connectivity. Bluetooth fails once more to be anything more than an interesting diversion -- as a serious solution to an actual problem, it is worthless.

Security is another problem with Bluetooth. By default, most Bluetooth devices are configured to seek each other out and establish communication across a "piconet" -- a short-range wireless network. Technologically-adept consumers can of course secure their devices against random passerby with a Bluetooth connection, but most consumers are not technologically literate, and will never realize the ease with which a total stranger can lift data from their PDA, eavesdrop on their phonecalls, or otherwise find ways of taking advantage of an inherently insecure technology.

On the road.
Picture this: You're driving along and you get a phonecall on your mobile. Being a responsible driver who likes to keep both hands on the wheel, you don't want to hold the phone to your head -- safety first, and holding a phone while driving can get fairly annoying. What do you do?

If you're like most people these days, you have a handy earpiece -- one end plugs into your phone, the other into your ear, and now you can speak into the air like Lieutenant Uhura hailing the Romulans. It's an effective way to hold cellular conversations without impairing your driving.

Enter Bluetooth. Its original conception, remember, was to do away with that wire -- now you can hang a carefully-balanced Bluetooth "headset" on your ear, which will transmit the audio signal to and from the phone without the wire. In that respect, Bluetooth succeeded in doing exactly what it was originally designed to do.

And now the question must be asked -- where was the problem that Bluetooth was solving here? Is having a wire running from ear to phone really such a cumbersome burden? Most people seem to have no problem with it. Is it any more or less cumbersome than, say, hanging a headset from your ear and walking around like some sort of cyborg? While the headset isn't exactly an annoyance, neither is the wire, and so Bluetooth once again fails to address any sort of realistic problem that needed solving. All of this assumes, of course, that your phone is Bluetooth-enabled. A few are but most are not, due to Bluetooth not being nearly as universal a standard as was originally conceived. Most people simply use the wired piece and will continue to do so for quite some time to come.

In the office.
You're an engineer on location and you need your supervisor's approval to commence work on a client project, in the middle of a field (this happens to most people, doesn't it?). How are you going to email your boss and get his approval email back?

Previously there were any number of ways to handle this situation. Calling your boss is a good idea -- he can verbally approve you and deal with the paperwork locally. If necessary he could even fax the paperwork to the appopriate person at the client company, or you could do it yourself later. Or, if you have something like a Danger Sidekick, you'd have your PDA and cellphone all-in-one, and could email directly from that, using the cellular network. Or, if you weren't a total toolbag, you'd have gotten approval before you left to go stand in the field.

Along the way, someone decided that these solutions were simply unacceptable, and so implented Bluetooth connections across PDAs and cellphones. Now you can write your email on your PDA, Bluetooth a connection to your cellphone which will act as an ad-hoc modem, and your email whirls away into the electronic ether. This is an admittedly cool way to do things, but confers zero advantages over the more mundane solutions, particularly when we consider that, again, the number of PDAs and cellphones that are actually Bluetooth-enabled these days are low. Hopefully both your devices have Bluetooth -- if not, I guess you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way.

The speed of Bluetooth is meant to be the equalizer in this situation. A cellular modem connection, unless it is in the presence of a 3G network, will be slow -- comparable to a 9600 dialup modem. The Sidekick would therefore be a rather slow way of transferring the needed data back to headquarters, and Bluetooth offers us a 1 to 10mbit solution.

Of course, our talented engineer then realizes that the fast connection afforded by Bluetooth is only between his PDA and his cellphone -- the actual connection to the network is going to be determined strictly by the phone and ceullar network, and Bluetooth has nothing to do with it. This is a shame, but then, we're talking about transferring emails around, so I suppose a few seconds' delay isn't something that we should concern ourselves with. You'll be screaming along at 14.4 either way.

Now get out of that field and go back to the office. Aren't you supposed to be working? Let's see what you can do with Bluetooth when you're in a workplace environment.

First you'll have to buy the adapters (or "dongles"), since the odds of any workstations in your office having Bluetooth ability is low. They aren't expensive, but we've seen the hassle of trying to get them to work properly. Once you've done that, simply plug them in and be transported into a magical world of high-speed wireless access across all your office devices.

Or maybe not. First you'll want to futz about with your LAN settings and the TCP/IP stack, which will run absolutely counter to what you've already got. Make sure your devices are positioned in precise alignment, lest you lose the connection. Don't bother trying to use your elite Bluetooth connection between walls, or if someone closes a door, or if your coworker happens to walk between the devices -- it probably won't work. Bluetooth has failed to be the quick, easy, all-inclusive standard that it was proffered as; you'd be better off using the 802.11 standard which is implemented on nearly all modern laptops and many desktops, is simple to implement, highly affordable, and works through walls, doors, and coworkers.

The upshot.
Other than extremely specific circumstances and implausible situations, Bluetooth is a useless technology. It is neither standard nor simple, solves no problems that weren't already solved (usually in more than one way), and provides no benefits over the previous solutions. While it has a very small number of legitimate applications, it is largely nothing more than a toy to the general populace and not a very useful one at that. It is, in short, a solution looking for a problem, one that it is likely to never find.

Additional reading.

Bluetooth in XP. God help us.

Not quite living up to expectations. And I thought this was supposed to let me transfer data around with ease.

Yawncetera. "I have seen Bluetooth, and it works. The question is: Who cares?"

Data sync blues.

Much ado about nothing.

Bluetooth, we hardly loved ye.