Bluetoothiness and truthiness

Okay, here is a quick test. Do you recognize the following acronyms? A2DP, AVRCP, GOEP, BIP, HSP, OPP, HFP? Here’s a hint: they all have something to do with Bluetooth. I’ll give you the answers at the end of this column, but let’s get to some of the underlying truths of Bluetooth (say that five times fast, if you will).

I had a chance to look at some of the latest Bluetooth products as part of an assignment for the NY Times. They asked for my recommendations for their annual holiday geek gift guide, out today. The article is called “Music, Photos and Printouts, Beamed Through the Air.”

I wanted to take a moment and talk about what I’ve learned about Bluetooth in the process of doing this article. While there are some great products that cut the cord, the state of Bluetooth today is akin to where Ethernet was back in 1990, or WiFi around 1992: a series of incompatible technologies, poorly adopted protocols, and different implementations that will conflict with each other when more than one thing is installed on the same PC. Does that sound as bad as it reads?

Bluetooth is short-range wireless, for those of you that haven’t yet touched this tech. And short-range meaning about 25 feet, give or take. Its most popular implementation to date has been hands-free headsets for cell phones, and indeed there are dozens of models to choose from, some of which are almost sonically acceptable. The ones from Jabra are akin to wearable jewelry and some are so small it is easy to forget they on your ear. If all you are doing is using a headset on your phone, then these products are pretty solid.

The problems start to appear when you pair the same Bluetooth part with multiple devices, such as cell phones and computers, or want to do more than just have a remote headset. Then you have to rely on the different PC makers’ implementations of how they have added Bluetooth protocol support. For the Times review, I found that many products worked fine as long as I used the company’s own Bluetooth USB dongle that came with the product. On a recent vintage Dell laptop, its built-in Bluetooth adapter was almost worthless and could barely connect with anything.

I had some better luck with a dongle from Toshiba on Windows, and a Dlink USB adapter on my Mac, but it was still touch and go. (Most Macs come with their own BT support but I didn’t get it on mine.) If I installed several different dongles on a PC, the computer would get confused and I had to resort to re-imaging the entire drive to clear things up. This isn’t yet for the general public, where the words “re-image your drive” strike fear into their hearts.

On some products, like a Lexmark photo printer, I tried four or five USB adapters that weren’t recognized by the printer, including one that was on the manufacturer’s recommended list. It was using a different firmware version, I guess. But I shouldn’t have to guess. (The P450 5″x7″ photo printer, by they way, is a dandy one despite these shortcomings. It doesn’t connect to PCs, but reads the camera media storage cards directly and makes beautiful prints that you would think came from a professional print house.)

Remember that litany of acronyms at the top of this column? I know you have dying to find out what they are:

• A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution)
• AVRCP (Audio Video Remote Control)
• BIP (Basic Imaging Profile)
• OPP (Object Push Profile)
• HSP (Headset profile)
• HFP (Hands-free profile)
• GOEP (Generic Object Exchange Profile)

Well, that is just the start of how hairy Bluetooth is. Some Bluetooth dongles don’t support all the various profiles, so you could get into a situation where you have a Bluetooth keyboard that doesn’t talk to your PC, but a headset that does, with the same dongle. This isn’t yet a consumer-friendly place to be. And it isn’t necessarily a good thing for IT managers at corporations either. Here is an article that I wrote about that for Computerworld.

Certainly, smarter minds than mine are working on this, and it is a shame that the overall situation is in such a sorry state. And I don’t mean this to be a rant that paints all Bluetooth products with the same dark brush – there are some great products out there. I just don’t want to have to re-image my drive when I want to switch between them.

0 thoughts on “Bluetoothiness and truthiness

  1. Several of my readers have written in about Bluetooth, some taking me to task about my blatant American bias in the above piece. Truthiness, indeed! Part of Bluetooth’s promises and problems stem from its Euro-centric origins. Here is one comment:

    This is SUCH a US-centric article ! I remember when Dave & Sandy of BroadbandHome visited me here in the UK a couple of years ago, they were bowled over by the take-up of Bluetooth which was way ahead of the US – although back then it was only about wireless headsets for cellphones.

    My experience of Bluetooth Beyond Cellphones is that if you take consumer electronics equipment from manufacturers with a track record of building usable consumer electronics then things kind of just work, and no-one ever worries about what protocols are supported. I’ve got a SonyEricsson bluetooth headset which works just fine with my QTEK and Nokia cellphones (and in the case of the QTEK gives better call quality than the handset’s own nike/speaker), which in turn work seamlessly with my Sony Vaio laptop and my HP photo printer. I’d never trust Dell to get it right in a month of Sundays – in their heart of hearts, they do PCs, not consumer electronics.

    Just a thought…

    Russell Haggar, Esprit Capital Partners LLP, Cambridge UK

  2. Guess who designed the BT protocols? The same sort of European academics that designed the ISO protocols: X.400, ASN.1, X.500, and those lovely protocols that were supposed to displace TCP/IP. I’m sure you recall.

    The BT protocols are “design and decree”, designed by academics, rolled out and implemented with little chance to undergo successive refinement and simplification. It’s no wonder things are messy. The pairing problem is just typical of something that is dreamed up and shoved down peoples’ throats.

    I don’t agree with the analogy with Ethernet. While the state of the art in -implementing- Ethernet was crude in the old days (no argument there), the design is elegant and has stood the test of time remarkably well. It’s no wonder. The design came from working engineers (at Xerox PARC), and the 3Mb PUP protocol was used in Xerox’s worldwide intranet (they called it
    the “internet”) for years before the 10MB Ethernet came out. They did so many things right. BT is still trying to pound its square peg into round holes.

    I’d place the blame for BT’s crazy state squarely on the DESIGNERS’ shoulders. Specifically who are they? Where are
    they (Scandanavia, definitely European :-))) They created a mess with which the implementing engineers have to live.

    — Bob Denny

  3. One more comment from Bob Denny. I thought I’d pass along what I learned about installing BT dongles on my several PCs. I’ll skip the adventures. Bottom line: on the PC there are three
    widely used BT protocol stacks and app layers:

    Microsoft’s (in XP)
    Blue Soliel

    Microsoft’s is virtually useless, and seems to engage in unsolicited hijacks of any other BT you try to install. It ‘recognizes’ the adapter and hooks itself up period. RegEdit needed to disable it.

    Blue Soliel is OK, but crude.

    WIDCOMM’s is far and away the best. You get a “My Bluetooth Places” that is feature rich, supports most any profile, and works rock solid. The trick is to find the dongles that include the WIDCOMM stack. Belkin and D-Link do I believe.

  4. Another problem with Bluetooth dongles is making them usable on your PC. I bought a generic USB Bluetooth adapter a while back, and while WinXP saw it, it didn’t recognize it natively as a Bluetooth device. The driver installation CD that came with it was completely useless, and I ended up downloading proprietary Widcomm (now Broadcom) drivers off a P2P network. That did the trick, after about 90 minutes of installation hell…

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