Bluetooth Update: Signal benefits

Now Bluetooth has finally arrived, the world doesn’t need short lengths of cable any more. This, of course, is very neat. But what does it mean to corporates?

Everyone will be pleased at being able to get an Internet connection from an iPaq or Palm handheld PC without having to go through the entertaining ritual of balancing the mobile phone on one knee and fumbling about with wires. There is also an undoubted convenience about being able send a wireless instruction to a Bluetooth printer that is way across the other side of an open plan office, to print a document off your notebook PC.

That these activities are and will be convenient seems self evident, but the cable replacement feature of Bluetooth does not, by itself, suggest instantly obvious cost savings or substantial new revenue generating opportunities for corporates. Stitching Bluetooth’s capabilities into solutions that create real business benefits on a significant scale is a challenge that consultants and solutions providers are still coming to terms with.

As Tony Locke, a senior analyst with Bloor Research points out, a golden rule for both consultants and their corporate clients is to begin by identifying business goals. Only when these are clearly defined and the processes to achieve them understood, should people start looking round for technologies to help them execute those strategies. The history of IT, he points out, is full of instances of individuals getting excited about a new technology, then looking for ways of making it useful inside the business. That approach, in his view, goes about things in precisely the wrong way. It is also an approach that is increasingly out of favour with corporate boards.

“What we are seeing today is that companies have smartened up their procurement processes. Instead of the IT manager or the CIO being able to buy into a technology because it looks good, you now have procurement committees with a clear mission to ensure that when the company makes a capital spend, it does so with definite business related objectives and quantifiable business related benefits in mind,” Lock observes.

Nick Hunn, managing director of the electrical components manufacturer, TDK Systems, which specialises in a range of Bluetooth components, puts the problem with Bluetooth succinctly. “The interesting point that people need to grasp is that while it probably doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, it does a whole bunch of things very adequately. This is going to make it a very useful component in all kinds of mobility related applications.”

Hunn argues that while many people see Bluetooth as simply a cable replacement technology, with the specific but limited range of benefits and convenience that this suggests, it has the capacity to be far more than this. One obvious thing that is the voice channel capacity that Bluetooth offers.

An executive with a Bluetooth enabled microphone and headset combination could voice dial a number on his or her mobile phone and have that phone connect via an ISP direct to the corporate Voice over IP (VoIP) network, making voice a particularly interesting function for consultants to look at in their quest to deliver cost savings for their corporate clients.

One immediate, business related benefit, for example, is the opportunity to cut costs by leveraging the corporate VoIP investment to make calls even when executives are on the road.

The most immediate applications, however, will see Bluetooth used in combination with either GPRS or the wireless LAN technology, 802.11b, to initiate either simple data transfer activity or for more interactive query type sessions with back office systems. “For real solution building that has the potential to cut several stages out of a corporate business process chain, the most obvious way forward today is to add Bluetooth to GPRS to give executives mobile access to the Internet, and thus to the corporate LAN,” he says.

Johan Akesson, marketing director at Ericsson Technology Licensing, not surprisingly, agrees. Ericsson executives are quite open about their hopes that Bluetooth will prove a sufficiently compelling “must have” technology to prompt large numbers of mobile phone users to swap their old GSM phones for GPRS/Bluetooth models. However, Akesson knows that this will only happen if a sufficiently compelling set of benefits can flow from such a switch. His bet is that these benefits will be forthcoming, despite the fact that the applications that are going to deliver real advantage are still hard to find right now.

“There is no doubt that Bluetooth is going to generate change, and massive change at that,” he says. We are heading for a ubiquitous wirelessly enabled world, and this is the direction that consultants need to think in if they want to be able to steer their clients to real business benefits.

“What consultants have to realise is that corporates and consumers ultimately will not care, nor do they need to care, what technology is being used to get them what they want. The Wi-Fi (802.11b) standard, GPRS and Bluetooth are complementary technologies and it may well be that a solution uses all three, and that the handover from one to the other is completely transparent to the user. Solutions providers need to concentrate on benefits when dealing with clients, rather than on the technical capabilities of the Bluetooth standard,” he argues.

For 3Com’s business development manager, James Walker, Bluetooth is first and foremost a general purpose enabler. There is no doubt that solution builders will find highly specific ways of using it as part and parcel of an overall business solution, but its real growth motor will come simply from its obvious convenience, he suggests. The plain fact is that the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard replaces the need for Ethernet cables and Bluetooth does away with the need for just about every other kind of connection cable. For consultants, this will mean that virtually every solution they need to specify that has a mobile dimension to it, will have a Bluetooth element. Even standard in-office IT solutions will change to take advantage of Bluetooth.

“On my desk I now have a Bluetooth printer and all the people around me share this printer. The first thing that corporates will find is that they won’t need as many personal printers. I have the Ericsson T68 Bluetooth mobile phone, so it can double as a remote access modem without my taking it out of my briefcase. I get 45 Kbps connectivity to the Internet, using Bluetooth to connect to the wireless GPRS network. I can put on the Ericsson headset and voice dial a number while I’m on the train, again without taking out my phone.”

What this means for corporates, before any elaborate solution building takes place, is that it is now very convenient for their executives to “go mobile”. Therefore, if Bluetooth does nothing else, it will add considerable impetus to the trend towards out of office working, he says. Consultants will have all kinds of work to do building the back office infrastructure to give mobile workers the ability to do SQL based interrogations. The information sitting inside CRM systems, customer data files and corporate ERP systems will all become available to the mobile executive in a very convenient way. Bluetooth will generate the virtual com port connection that, via GPRS or Wi-Fi, will result in a potentially valuable, and revenue generating, interactive session for the mobile warrior.

Intel’s product manager, Vim Nagel, points out that one of the generic problems corporates have right now is that the emergence of hand held PCs with substantial memory capabilities has simply proliferated the number of different places where data can be copied to. Multiple copies of data create manifold opportunities for data to get out of sync. When people act on out-of-date data errors occur and those errors can cost corporates serious amounts of money.

Therefore one of the most important generic uses of Bluetooth, he suggests, will be to ensure that changes to the data ripple through from the core business systems out to executives on the road, and visa versa. “The average executive now has at least three and possibly four devices where they can store data, their desktop PC, their notebook, a PDA and their mobile phone. Bluetooth makes it possible to synchronise data between these devices very simply.”

Strictly speaking, of course, the synchronisation function is a software application add on that utilises Bluetooth, but the point stands. Hitting a button labelled “synchronise” is easy to do in a Bluetooth enabled personal area network (PAN). Messing around with cables to connect three or four different devices each in turn is time consuming and irritating. This creates a barrier to carrying out the synchronisation exercise and means that in large numbers of cases, executives will be less than diligent about ensuring that each of their devices is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Consultants will want to move on from here and find ways of automating the synchronisation process, so that it will be carried out automatically when two “related” devices are brought within range of each other.

This raises the issue of security. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) which wrote the standard paid particular attention to the problem of how to give devices the ability to discover other devices securely.

The solution Bluetooth provides utilises a combination of user activity and Bluetooth functionality. Devices are classified and their names (assigned by the user) are displayed. This means that even in a crowded Bluetooth environment, say a London tube full of Bluetooth equipped executives, connecting with a travelling companion’s PDA is simple.

The discovery process takes a second, and though it registers all devices within range, the categorisation process means you can eliminate all devices that are not PDAs, then scan down the list of PDAs in your area, pick out your companion’s and authorise only that device. (Bluetooth devices can also be set to deny discovery when you don’t want your mobile phone or notebook to be “pinged” by total strangers).

Once the discovery process is complete, the next level of security is provided by the frequency hopping nature of Bluetooth. Frequency hopping, where the device sends one packet of information, then changes the frequency according to an algorithm before it sends the next packet, is inherently hard to crack. This means that even plain text communication between participating Bluetooth devices can be relatively secure and there can be a reasonable level of certainty that your notes on your company’s forthcoming M&A play for a competitor will not materialise on the PDAs of everyone else on the tube. Consultants will have plenty to do, however, adding deep encryption and secure authentication to corporate implementations, ensuring that Bluetooth communication matches the highest levels of security.

There are issues with weakly authenticated connections where the information being exchanged is sensitive. The tag “Jack’s PDA” for example, might not carry a great deal of comfort, from a secure authentication standpoint, in the above example. There is a high possibility of more than one Jack being on the train. Again, this provides fertile ground for solution builders to step in with add on authentication layers such as a Bluetooth enabled secure ID token, wrapped up in a PKI infrastructure. The point, however, is that Bluetooth provides a sound basic platform onto which additional security can be layered according to an organisation’s perceived need.

A nice spin off benefit of frequency hopping is that it minimises interference from other Bluetooth devices in the environment, even when these devices are active with their own sessions. Since participants in each session are changing frequency constantly the number of instances when they are each coincidentally at the same frequency is dramatically reduced and clashes last just 1600th of a second, unless by a further coincidence, the second hop also shares a common frequency. Even so, the amount of data loss (and hence, retransmissions leading to a slower data throughput) will be tiny.

There was considerable concern in the early days of Bluetooth that office environments that used 802.11b wireless LANs would experience significant data loss through collisions with Bluetooth transmissions. In fact studies showed that even an office liberally populated with active Bluetooth sessions barely registered any decrease in wireless LAN performance.

Charles Elliott, a manager with Deloitte Consulting, argues that Bluetooth is best thought of by solution providers as a near ideal way of transferring relatively modest amounts of data over a short distance, and a gateway technology to GPRS and the coming UMTS networks for longer distance transport.

The data bandwidth, at less than a 10th of what, in today’s terms is a slow 10 Mbps fixed wire LAN, is not generous, but it is enough for a good interactive question and answer session.

“It is up to the consultant to structure the application so that the end user is not tempted to call for the contents of an entire catalogue to get pulled down to their handset. But if what you want is an update on the client’s credit position, or a quick check on alternative products for the client, it is ideal,” he says. From a systems builder’s standpoint, there is a lot of comfort to be had from knowing that thanks to Bluetooth’s low power demands, you can give the client substantial query capabilities and still get eight hours battery life out of a handheld computer.

As to actual applications already using Bluetooth, Elliott says that Deloitte has already built systems across a number of industry segments, including patient records access applications for health care professionals, and inventory management and logistics systems. “One of the things that pleases clients is that adding Bluetooth is potentially a very low cost option once we see demand for chip numbers ramp up. Wireless LAN chips currently cost around $25, yet the target price for Bluetooth chips is less than a fifth of that at just under $5.”

In his view the technology has tremendous potential for consultants who really want to bring forward solutions that genuinely add value. He points out too, that the consultancy sector will need to keep an eye on what embedded systems markets do with the technology. Automotive manufacturers are already experimenting with embedded Bluetooth chips to transmit engine statistics, fuel level information and so on via GSM or GPRS networks direct to some centrally managed server. A systems integrator building a solution for a car rental firm could use this with a properly configured back office suite to have the client’s bill prepared the instant they walk back in the door.

There is no end to the number of applications that we will see over the next year that use Bluetooth, he claims. Volvo is already using Bluetooth as a cable replacement technology to make its car assembly robots cable free. There are already trials of Bluetooth payment systems using the mobile phone as a wireless “credit card”.

So are corporates rushing to trial Bluetooth based solutions now that it has finally arrived? Not yet, according to Elliott, but they will be by the end of the year, in his judgment. Some slowness is inevitable, since we are still in the launch phase of this technology. But it seems clear that we are going to see dual Wi-Fi (802.11b) and Bluetooth chipsets getting embedded into all kinds of devices through 2002 and 2003 as people get used to a wireless environment. More than 2,000 companies have signed the Bluetooth Adopter agreement with the special interest group, and they come from a very wide spectrum of industries. As Elliott puts it, things are bound to change now Bluetooth has started to roll.

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