I have a serious case of Bluetooth envy. My wife came home with a new Motorola cell phone with Bluetooth, which uses radio links to transfer data. With a Bluetooth chip buried in her car stereo, she can make and take calls, hands-free, while driving — even with the phone still in her handbag.
Of course, with more than 1,700 Bluetooth-enabled products out there — everything from keyboards to cameras — there are countless opportunities for me to join in the fun. But I wonder: Is Bluetooth where I should be placing my wireless bets? As I write, a mob of newer short-range wireless technologies is making Bluetooth look . . . well, long in the tooth.
There's near field communications, or NFC, the radio-frequency technology touted by a consortium that includes the likes of Philips, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony. Motorola and Samsung are also backing the ZigBee protocol, along with Honeywell and other companies. Meanwhile, supporters of ultra wideband (UWB) include Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and (hello, again) Motorola and Samsung.
These upstarts have some grand designs for your cell phone. NFC, for one, wants to turn it into a credit card. Say you spot a poster advertising Springsteen's new tour. You flash your NFC-equipped phone at the poster, and it connects you to a Web site where you can buy tickets, using credit stored in a chip in the handset. MasterCard and Visa like this idea enough to have joined the NFC club. An NFC "shell" on the back of the Nokia 3220 is being tested by commuters to pay for tickets on a transport system near Frankfurt, Germany; the handset could go on sale this fall.
Backers of UWB, meanwhile, see your phone as a media player. UWB is a speed freak, using a wide frequency to hit transfer rates of up to 480 megabits per second. That's more than 100 times faster than a Bluetooth connection — handy, say, for downloading music and films. ZigBee, alternatively, operates at a pedestrian 250 kilobits per second — but its low power requirements can transform your mobile phone into a remote control for your microwave, light dimmers, or burglar alarm.
The reality is, even the new, faster Bluetooth 2 will be overmatched on performance by all three new rivals. When gear based on the new protocols comes down in price, the old standard likely will go the way of eight-track tapes. Of course, it's not a done deal. Consumers will need to be convinced, for one thing, that they need all this new functionality. But I'm already a convert, and I'm holding out for the new technologies. They'll almost surely produce a phone my wife will envy.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.