updated 5/4/2005 9:18:26 AM ET 2005-05-04T13:18:26

Wireless developers plan to work together to meld Bluetooth, the short-range technology that links cell phones and cordless headsets, with an emerging technology designed to beam video and other large content short distances between TVs, home entertainment systems and computers.

The plan, announced Wednesday, comes at a crucial time for Bluetooth. After years of hype, the technology is finally becoming a mainstream feature on mobile devices, only to be met with predictions it may soon be supplanted by other technologies and disappear.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a 3,400-member group whose backers include Nokia Corp., Motorola Corp. and Intel Corp., said it has begun working with two industry bodies developing rival versions of the technology commonly referred to as ultra-wideband, or UWB.

The discussions with the WiMedia Alliance and the UWB Forum are very preliminary, so it is unclear whether the collaboration will produce an integrated platform combining Bluetooth with UWB. There are also issues such as UWB regulatory approvals and signal interference with other wireless technologies that need resolution.

While both technologies are used for connections of 10 yards or less to create so-called “personal area networks” between various devices, the similarities mostly end there.

There’s little relation in terms of the actual technology, but the most significant difference is speed.

The most common type of Bluetooth transmits data at speeds of up to 1 megabit per second, while a next-generation version starting to hit the market offers up to 3 mbps.

UWB allows speeds of 100 mbps and higher, making it a far more effective way to transmit, for example, a video signal from a digital video recorder to a flat-screen monitor or a laptop without wires.

That means a UWB signal has enough bandwidth to handle a high-definition television program, which can require 22 mbps of bandwidth for real-time streaming and viewing, plus a few other tasks at the same time.

One major goal, according to the Bluetooth group, is to enable short-range wireless compatibility between today’s Bluetooth-enabled devices and machines with UWB, which are not expected to hit the market until at least next year.

The appeal? Millions of devices with Bluetooth shipping every week, and buyers of those products might be frustrated if they’re unable to communicate with UWB-enabled purchases down the road.

By contrast, the prospect of compatibility could make manufacturers more comfortable about developing products with the technologies, said Michael Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth group.

“The question becomes how do we make people feel comfortable about implementing Bluetooth in their devices today when they see something on the horizon,” Foley said. “And this solution will really speed the time to market for UWB devices because we’re creating a very clear path for manufacturers to add ultra wideband to their devices” without negating their investment in developing Bluetooth products.

While Bluetooth adoption is expected to grow for the next few years, many have questioned its longer-term fate.

Bluetooth’s big advantages, for now, compared with UWB include its market penetration and increasingly recognizable brand name, as well as its low power-consumption, which makes it perfect for cell phones and headsets with limited battery life.

“Nobody’s really been targeting voice applications for ultra-wideband, everybody is targeting video,” said Joyce Putscher, an industry analyst for In-Stat. But, she added, “If nothing was done (to integrate Bluetooth with UWB), at some point ultra wideband would figure out a way to tackle voice.”

In addition, thanks to the growing demand, Bluetooth component prices have fallen sharply to a few dollars per device, whereas UWB may cost as much as $20 per device in the beginning, said Putscher.

“So you have to wait for ultra-wideband to get very cost efficient,” she said. “This is going to be a very slow process. It’s too soon to tell if Bluetooth goes away.”

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