It seems that every new electronic device on the market claims to be “Bluetooth enabled.” But what, exactly, is Bluetooth? How can it make my business more efficient? And why is it called Bluetooth?
What it is
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses short-range radio to connect devices. It has a relatively limited range — about 10 meters — which limits its use to “cable replacement” and similar applications. It’s perfect for connecting keyboards to computers, for transferring digital photos from Bluetooth-equipped cameras, and syncing PDAs and other devices to your workstation. You can even wirelessly network printers and other peripheral devices.
But because of the 10-meter range, it’s not a great option for running an entire computer network. For now, WiFi is still your best bet for unwired networking. However, Bluetooth is great at what it does; it’s reasonably fast, and uses next to no battery power. These factors add up to a wireless standard tailor-made for many of today’s consumer electronic devices.
Even with the built-in 10-meter limitation, manufacturers seem to have no trouble finding innovative applications for Bluetooth. Cell phones, PDAs, and even cars offer Bluetooth connectivity. Courier and delivery services are equipping their delivery drivers with Bluetooth “tablets” that automatically sync with computers when they return to their delivery trucks, immediately transferring package and signature data. Bluetooth is even being used to monitor critical infrastructure elements, such as water-pumping stations. Bluetooth’s utility is limited only by manufacturers’ imaginations — and that 10-meter range.
How it works
Bluetooth devices are equipped with tiny chips that transmit and receive data and voice information. These chips communicate with one another over a low radio frequency — 2.4GHz — on a portion of the radio spectrum known as the Industrial, Scientific, and Medical band. Radio “traffic” on these bands can be heavy, as the band is unlicensed, but Bluetooth uses a technique called “frequency hopping” to avoid interference.
Frequency hopping, as the name suggests, means the devices are almost always changing the frequencies on which they’re transmitting and receiving. These hops are synchronized, of course, between transmitter and receiver, so communication is maintained. Frequency hopping not only protects the data stream against interference, but also protects it from being intercepted. Because the devices are always switching channels, any eavesdropping devices on a specific channel would intercept only a small fraction of all data sent.
Developers are already working on Bluetooth’s successor. Ultrawideband, or UWB, technology promises to offer “personal area networking” (that’s industry-speak for short-distance networking) capability similar to Bluetooth, but will be much faster and much easier to use. It may even sport improved range — possibly up to 25 meters.
But such is the life cycle of new technologies; yesterday’s “killer app” is tomorrow’s quaint museum exhibit. Because of its extremely wide adoption by manufacturers, Bluetooth will certainly be around for a while, before it’s superseded by UWB or whatever the next latest and greatest technology is. And for now, Bluetooth is a good way to get rid of those pesky wires.