A new age for Bluetooth

05 Sep 2007

Bluetooth, the popular short-range connectivity technology used to link mobile phones to hands-free devices, could be headed for a massive re-invention that includes a host of new markets and applications during the next two years in Asia and around the world. Proponents envision a future of mainstream Bluetooth consumer electronic devices that will provide users their own personal health sensors to monitor blood pressure or glucose levels; a convenient means to beam photos from mobile phones to digital picture frames; and a mechanism for many more cashless transactions with their phones.

What could make this possible is two new versions of Bluetooth, a low-power 2.1 upgrade planned for next year and a 3.0 version in two years that will use wideband technology and be 200 times more powerful that the current version.

However, before Bluetooth, a technology that been tremendously hyped since its inception, actually hits the consumer mainstream, there will be standards to be finalized, new alliances to be struck, vendors to be converted and, of course, consumers to be convinced.

Slowing growth

Even so, New Age Bluetooth has a lot of momentum growing behind it: Legal mandates in Asia and elsewhere for hands-free handset operation in automobiles is pushing greater use of the technology, for example. There's growing consumer interest in small sensor devices that monitor everything from the distance you jog to the calories you consume. And, most importantly, Bluetooth backers are forcefully pursuing new opportunities because the market's rate of growth is slowing after several years of white-hot sales.

An August study from research firm In-Stat predicts that the Bluetooth market worldwide will increase 34% this year, a rate far below the more than 100% growth recorded last year. 'Market growth for Bluetooth products is beginning to slow, and it will see some complications arising from integration trends and new Bluetooth standards hitting the market,' says Brian O'Rourke, In-Stat principal analyst. 'The market for Bluetooth chips is also in flux.'

The In-Stat survey, which was web-based, also found that familiarity with Bluetooth lagged in some Asian markets such as Japan and Korea, compared to countries such as the US, France, Germany and the UK. O'Rourke notes that about 61% of respondents in Japan and 40% in Korea said they were not familiar with Bluetooth, figures far higher than the European markets and somewhat higher than the US.

'The highest familiarity with Bluetooth was in Europe,' says O'Rourke. 'In Asia it was low. Asia is an extremely tech-savvy market, so that was a surprise.' He adds that cultural factors could play a role: In Japan, which favors personal contact, the clunky Bluetooth earpieces are considered socially unacceptable for business and consumer use.

New standards

Proponents believe the new standards and upcoming improvements will quickly alter that reality. 'Japan has been slow to ramp up its awareness and adoption, and one of the main reasons is the availability of products in the Japanese market,' says Eric Schneider, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group's (SIG) Hong-Kong-based marketing director for Asia Pacific.

'In Japan the Bluetooth headset is seen as being culturally uncouth.' However, Schneider adds Bluetooth use will grow as the country's driving laws prohibit hand-held phone use and auto manufacturers incorporate hands-free technology into new car models.

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