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.