For this week’s Engadget Interview, veteran journalist J.D. Lasica spoke with Bluetooth SIG executive director Mike Foley from his headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., about wireless headphones, hands-free phone gabbing, and what kinds of Bluetooth-enabled gadgets we’ll be seeing in the years ahead.
For those who aren’t familiar with Bluetooth, what is it and why should we care?
From the big-picture perspective, Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology with its mission in life to replace cables and to allow devices to communicate with each other without having to plug them together.
Work on this began in the mid- to late ’90s. Since then, work has been done on enhancing the specification, creating a good test program that devices go through before they enter the market to ensure interoperability between devices, and getting Bluetooth into many devices so that it really becomes valuable to the consumer.
The initial use cases we’re seeing lots of take-up now is in the mobile phone to a wireless headset for you to take and receive calls on. Similar to that is its use in the car, where you can take calls from your mobile phone hands free, so you use your speakers in your car stereo and a microphone that’s typically placed above your visor to take and receive calls.
Beginning this summer, we’ll see a wide number of stereo headsets available, and then your mobile phone and portable media devices will be able to play on those headsets without having to plug them into the unit.
Stereo headsets for music?
Exactly right. The scenario there is either your portable music player like an iPod or your smartphone with music capabilities would be able to play to that Bluetooth headset.
Probably next year you’ll be able to stream music to your car stereo so that you’d be able to access music from a single digital music store in your car as well as your home.
We recently profiled Motorola’s iRadio initiative here. What other companies are working with Bluetooth?
There are many companies working on the stereo music capability. Today you can buy an adapter for the iPod that enables that with Bluetooth to stream to a stereo headset. Most, if not all, of the mobile phone manufacturers are looking at this to see how the mobile phone can be your No. 1 digital music store device.
Let’s start with cars. Bluetooth car kits are available from Nokia, Motorola, Parrot and other companies. How does that work?
One of the things that was exciting for us in 2004 was the number of factory-installed options had increased from fewer than 10 to more than 30 models where you can get Bluetooth factory installed.
I want my Bluetooth Jaguar!
Sure. There are also add-on kits where Bluetooth is integrated with your car’s entertainment system. So if you’re driving down the road listening to the radio or a CD and a phone call comes in, you hit a button on the dashboard or on the add-in unit, or use voice control to accept the call, and your music will turn off while you’re taking the call, or the CD would pause. When you’re done with the call, the music resumes.
In some of the newer models, you can see the number of who’s calling on your stereo or on your rear-view mirror or on the windshield at the bottom.
The most popular use of Bluetooth today would be in mobile phones, is that right?
That’s correct. The most devices sold with Bluetooth are the mobile phones. Initially, they were the high-end phones but we’ve seen the trend where Bluetooth is in more and more models. We envision that within a couple of years it will be difficult to buy a mobile phone that doesn’t have Bluetooth in it.
Any numbers on Bluetooth deployment in cell phones?
Research from IDC found that 13 percent of mobile phones in the U.S. had Bluetooth, and they expect that number to go up to 65 percent or more by 2008. Globally, IDC is forecasting 63 percent of all mobile phones to have Bluetooth by 2008.
What’s the advantage of having Bluetooth in your cellphone?
There are a couple of key advantages. One is the wireless headset — to be able to take your calls via that, or the hands-free operation that we discussed earlier. Other advantages include synchronizing your phone with your personal computer to keep your contacts and schedule and task list current on your mobile phone.
Another usage for Bluetooth in the phone that’s much more popular in Europe and Asia than it has been in the States so far is where you use your mobile phone as a modem for either your personal computer or PDA. The reason it’s been more popular in Asia and Europe to date is they have faster wide area networks. But now that we’re starting to see 3G networks being deployed in the U.S., I think we’re going to see that become more popular here as well.
Why is Europe ahead of the U.S. in Bluetooth technology overall? Is it simply a technology issue or do corporate gamesmanship come into play too?
I think it’s also the personal mentality that Europe seems to be more mobile phone-centric while the U.S. is more personal computer-centric.
I understand that Verizon Motorola V710 freezes out photo transfers to computers with Bluetooth, instead requiring customers to use its proprietary photo-transfer service for an additional fee. Are you running into those kinds of issues?
We have seen that a couple of times in the U.S. That has been disappointing because it’s confusing to the consumer. Bluetooth has gotten to the point where people now have a pretty good understanding of what a good Bluetooth phone implementation is, and when they take a picture, they expect to be able to either beam it to one of their friends or to a printer. When they haven’t been able to do that, it’s caused disappointment and confusion. ‘Why can my friends phone-beam the picture but yet mine can’t?’ We’re trying to work through that.
Do you consider Bluetooth an open platform? Members have to join and pony up some dough, right?
We consider ourselves an open standards group. You need to be a member of the Bluetooth SIG to implement the standard. There’s a free and a paying membership level. And there is a one-time fee associated with creating a Bluetooth product because of the requirements for certification and testing.
Bluetooth still hasn’t come into its own in the personal computer field. Is Apple leading the way there?
I think your assessment is fair. We think Bluetooth has a lot to offer to the personal computer world, and it hasn’t been as widely adopted there.
You’ve seen Apple and the Mac be more aggressive in this space. Last November, the latest version of the Bluetooth specification was published, and in February Apple released a Powerbook containing an implementation of that spec that was exceptionally fast. I wasn’t expecting to see that until this summer. Apple is showing great innovation and leadership in that space.
What does the Bluetooth Powerbook do?
It’s able to interface and synchronize with your phone. You’re able to exchange files with other personal computers or your PDA. You can use wireless mice, keyboards, printers with the personal computer. The main advantage for the new version of the spec is that it has a higher bit rate. If you’re exchanging a presentation or pictures between two devices, it lets you do that faster.
I’m looking beneath my desk right now and I’ve got more cables and coils than a used car lot. The vision is that a lot of that is going to go away some day?
We’ll definitely be able to remove the wires behind your desk. Already you can remove the wires from your mouse, your keyboard, your printer. The biggest challenge Bluetooth can’t solve today would be the cable to your monitor, which requires a higher bit rate.
Let’s talk about some other gadgets. What does Bluetooth add to a cameraphone?
The largest camera manufacturers are shifting to cell phones because they’re putting cameras in so many phones. Clearly, the optimum usage model is where you take a nice picture on your camera phone and send it directly to a printer or to a person standing across from you using Bluetooth. As people get used to using the camera on their phone to get that kind of instant gratification, that will drive even greater use of those camera phones.
The other trend we’re seeing is higher pixel density on the phones. It won’t be long before 2- and 3-megapixel phones will be common here.
What if you wanted to publish your picture to the Web? Bluetooth is only for short-range communication.
You could take one of two options. You could use Bluetooth to transfer the picture to your personal computer that’s connected to the Web and publish from there. Or you could use the wide area connection already in your phone to publish to the Web that way.
What about the social dimension? Howard Rheingold wrote Smart Mobs, about how people are using portable devices to communicate and interact in surprising ways. Will Bluetooth be a part of this?
The owner of a Bluetooth device can decide whether they want their device to be seen by other devices, that’s a term called discoverability. You can search for all nearby devices and it will tell you all devices found. If you’re in an open area, the range can be 20 or 30 meters. You could find a long list in a place like a train station. Then, you’d have a business card, where instead of your name, you have a nickname or handle and watch and see who looks at their phone to narrow it down who you’re communicating with.
Why would anyone want to be discovered, other than to hit on someone?
People have different motivations. I always keep my phone discoverable, because when someone wants to send me a legitimate business card, it’s just easier to have the person send you it. It’s a classic ease-of-use vs. privacy situation.
What about the privacy issues? Bluetooth devices have been hacked or commandeered.
We definitely continue to work with our memberships to make sure that the devices out there can’t be hacked into. Not every issue has been solved, but the problem has been minimized. Most known devices with a problem are either not sold anymore or a patch has come out.
We keep hearing about smart refrigerators what will order a half-gallon of milk when we’re running low. Will there really be Bluetooth fridges, microwaves and toaster ovens?
There is some work in the appliance industry, but that’s not a major driver today. Toshiba is working on some of those implementations.
Home automation or home security systems offer tremendous value. If you install a security system, you’ll be able to install sensors on your windows and doors and have those transmit wirelessly back to the security panel. That’s a very nice setup. Bluetooth could communicate with your mobile phone so you can arm and disarm your system as you enter and leave the house.
How might business travelers take advantage of Bluetooth?
The one nice scenario for business travelers using Bluetooth is dial-up, where you use your mobile phone as a modem and connect your PC to the network that way. You could connect wherever you’re at using a wide area network — you don’t have to go searching for a hotspot. And you can run email applications, browse the Web, connect back to your corporate intranet to run applications, and so on.
When you look at the gadgets we highlight on Engadget, do you see most of them becoming Bluetooth-enabled?
I think a lot of them will be. It will depend a little bit on how successful Bluetooth is in various markets. In the home entertainment cluster, those devices can potentially be very good to have Bluetooth in for remote control. What’s nice about Bluetooth is that it’s not directional and you can transmit data in both directions.
You can create a smart remote control that displays information about the movie being played, or the tracks on the CD, or about the TV show being displayed. You could transmit the guide to the remote rather than having to show it on screen.
In the portable devices space, that’s where Bluetooth’s strength is today, because it’s such a low-power and efficient technology, and can be added to those devices without causing their batteries to drain significantly. So the portable gaming consoles you see are prime type devices for Bluetooth to enable multiple-player gaming.
Why haven’t we seen more in the way of interactive television? Will Bluetooth let us communicate with our TVs through our laptops?
Yes, your laptop or a tablet-like device. You can come up with all sorts of interesting form factors. To be able to out-of-band information from the TV and display it on the device in your lap, the possibilities there are tremendous.
Most interactive TV systems today take up a part of the real estate on your screen, and typically people don’t want to give that up. Some of the TV manufacturers are looking into it. So far I haven’t heard of any interest by Hollywood or the content creators.
Does Bluetooth need to become better known by the average person in the street, or do you just need to be known by the device manufacturers?
The consumer really cares about the function, or what’s enabled. They want to be able to do hands-free talking in their car. The reality is that people are coming to understand you need Bluetooth for that. In the UK, there’s 77 percent brand awareness for Bluetooth.
What about in the U.S.?
In the U.S., awareness almost doubled from 22 percent to 41 percent of those polled being aware of Bluetooth from 2003 to 2004. In Japan, that figure increased from 43 percent to 61 percent.
Where do you see Bluetooth going in the next few years?
This year we’ll continue to see more Bluetooth-equipped cars, letting more people using the hands-free operation. I also think we’ll see Bluetooth extend into portable media players for use in the car, so you can take your digital music store with you.
We’re also looking at being able to address the video market in addition to what we’re doing with audio.
Beyond that, we’re looking at technology that enables its use in more vertical segments like industrial automation. A conveyer belt on a factory floor, with sensors all over it, could use Bluetooth to report the status of the widget being created.
Bluetooth is an established technology found in more and more devices, but we’re still enhancing the technology and making changes for new industries to come on board, like in the medical devices field. So we’re really just on the tip of the iceberg.