By Stephen H. Wildstrom When the short-range wireless technology called Bluetooth first appeared about five years ago, it was hyped as a way to finally sweep all those messy cables from our lives. Then cost and complexity took their inevitable toll, and many people wrote the technology off. Now Bluetooth is back, and it has become a useful tool in a variety of settings.
Bluetooth has had more success in Europe than in the U.S. It's standard on nearly all high-end European handsets. And Europeans were quick to adopt accessories such as cordless headsets for phones and laptops, wireless keyboards and mice, and more.
ATTRACTIVE HEADSETS. Today in the U.S. you'll find Bluetooth on many phones sold by Cingular and T-Mobile, since these carriers use the same technology as most of the rest of the world. Bluetooth is rarer on handsets from Sprint (FON) and Verizon Communications (VZ), which are based on technology used mainly in North America.
Laws requiring hands-free phones in automobiles are speeding the adoption of Bluetooth. In the best setups, such as the one found in the Acura TL, Bluetooth integrates the handset with the car so the stereo system serves as a speakerphone, and call information is displayed in the instrument panel. Starting at about $100, Bluetooth car kits are also available from Motorola (MOT), Nokia (NOK), Parrot, and others. Even the simplest creates a hands-free speakerphone.
High cost and poor battery life made early Bluetooth headsets for phones unattractive. But now you can get a Logitech (LOGI) Mobile Bluetooth headset for under $50. And the $140 Jabra BT800, which lets you control many cell-phone functions on the headset, offers six hours of talk time and five days of standby. After that, you can recharge by running a USB cable from the headset into a laptop so you don't need to take a charger with you. A headset on the way from Plantronics will come with adapters that allow charging from most phone adapters or from an AA battery.
LINKING UP. Bluetooth is also moving beyond hands-free phone use. Although Microsoft (MSFT) is a "promoter member" of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group that's responsible for the standard, Bluetooth support in Windows remains primitive.
Not so with Apple Computer (AAPL). The technology is standard in many Apple Macintoshes and optional in the rest, and with its new line of PowerBook laptops, Apple is the first to use a new, faster version of Bluetooth. If a Mac detects a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse during setup, it will automatically link to them.
PalmOne (PLMO) is also a Bluetooth enthusiast. Because palmOne's software overcomes most of the Windows difficulties, I had little trouble setting up a Treo 650 Palm phone and a Tungsten T5 PDA to sync and swap files with a Windows laptop over Bluetooth. Making sync work with a new Mac PowerBook is even easier. As for Microsoft's world, it's possible to get a Pocket PC to sync with Windows over Bluetooth, but only the technically savvy should try it.
WORTH WAITING FOR. Bluetooth still falls short in some areas. Early promoters promised that you could walk up to a Bluetooth printer with your laptop, hit a button, and print. But the software to enable this never materialized. Bluetooth printers remain scarce, though a new generation of Bluetooth-equipped camera phones may revive interest.
And some U.S. phone carriers limit the capabilities of Bluetooth. For example, you can't use it on a Verizon Motorola V710 to transfer photos to a computer -- you have to use Verizon's photo-transfer service instead.
We technology watchers are an impatient lot who tend to give up on anything that doesn't catch on right away. Bluetooth has proved once again that acceptance can take a long time -- and that sometimes it's worth the wait. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org