Wireless Bluetooth needs push from rival

Problems: The Palm system for wireless networking faces greatest threat from Microsoft's Passport.

September 03, 2001|By Jon Fortt | Jon Fortt,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

I took a trip to Palm headquarters recently to play with Bluetooth, a new wireless technology the handheld computer-maker wants to put in its products. After playing with it for a few minutes, I'm convinced Palm still has a big problem to solve.

The issue is that while Palm's Bluetooth solution works, the interface is still too clumsy to be useful.

Bluetooth products from several manufacturers will begin to show up as the holiday season kicks into gear, raising the eternal question in consumer electronics: to buy or not to buy? Already, Sony has said it will add the technology to two camcorders, and Palm will introduce a Bluetooth add-in card for its latest line of handheld computers this fall.

So far, I have not yet seen a single Bluetooth implementation that works intuitively and that I would want to purchase.

Bluetooth is a radio technology that generally allows devices within about 30 feet of each other to connect and share data at 1 megabit per second, which is roughly 20 times the speed of a dial-up modem. Bluetooth's big advantages are that adding it to a device right now does not add a lot of size or weight, and that Bluetooth devices can go a couple of days before their batteries conk out.

Because of those characteristics, some feel Bluetooth provides the ideal way to wirelessly connect the coming horde of mobile devices to one another - picture handheld computers connecting to the Internet via a wireless connection with a cell phone, or a laptop pulling down photos from a digital camera without the aid of cables.

But the interface problem has to be solved first.

The interface is the layer that makes technology useful, the layer that we see and touch. For example, the most common PC interface is a combination of the Windows operating system, the keyboard and the mouse - we use those tools to open and close windows, type into them, and click and drag things around a screen. The most common cell phone interface is the numeric keypad, the screen, the speaker and microphone.

The trouble with Bluetooth - and with wireless networking in general - is that it presents new capabilities that render the old interfaces obsolete. Until some company figures out the next great interface that makes wireless networking useful, no one will want to bother with it.

Here's an example of the problem: I got to play with a Bluetooth access point made by Pico Communications of Cupertino, Calif. Up to seven Bluetooth devices can connect to a corporate network and the Internet through one of the access points. Pico's access point worked fine - it was specially designed to project a signal more than 100 feet.

The trouble was in getting a Palm device to connect to the access point in the first place. It required going through a process of "discovery," which involves poking around on the Palm device and asking it to find all of the nearby Bluetooth devices. First we had to navigate to a screen where discovery could happen. Once the Palm discovered a half-dozen Bluetooth devices in the room, we had to pick the access point from the lineup. Then we had to sign on to it, tap a couple of buttons and go to another screen.

Even with the direction of an expert, it took about 30 seconds to go through the process of establishing the Bluetooth connection, which, I'd say, is about 25 seconds too long.

Connecting to public Bluetooth access points should be as easy as making a cell phone call. I should be able to flip open my Palm, check the strength of the wireless signal, and start surfing. Likewise, connecting to other Bluetooth devices should be as easy as sending an instant message.

The good news for Palm is that this problem can be solved. The bad news is that from what I've seen, the company closest to solving the problem is Palm's arch-rival, Microsoft.

One of the smart things about Microsoft's .NET strategy is that it begins to treat the user as a citizen in a networked world, rather than a user of one particular computer. There are some alarming aspects to Microsoft's vision - it involves trusting a multinational corporation with your most personal data, for starters - but I believe something akin to Microsoft's network citizenship strategy is absolutely necessary.

Microsoft plans to accomplish its network citizenship goal, in part, through its Passport identification system. Right now, everyone who uses MSN for Internet access or instant messaging, or Hotmail for e-mail, has a Passport account.

A system such as Passport could quickly show its benefits in a wireless network environment. Passports would provide ways for users to identify themselves, no matter what device they're using, no matter where they are. And because Passports are already rigged to work with MSN's instant messaging platform - which already "discovers" when certain users are online - such a system could solve that piece of the Bluetooth interface problem as well.

Passport also allows different levels of access privileges.

Microsoft has by no means figured everything out. Passport raises many security and trust questions, as well as basic questions of how to build an interface that best delivers wireless power while hiding the complexity.

Fortunately for Palm, Microsoft is not known for delivering simple-yet-powerful interfaces on the first try.

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