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Phone giants and MS square-off in Bluetooth standards war

Redmond disapproves of Bluetooth SIG, and the Vikings don't care, apparently...

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The Beast of Redmond breathed fire in the direction of the Bluetooth SIG today - or did it? According to "sources" referred to by our good friends at InfoWorld, Bluetooth is running into trouble in trying to recruit Microsoft, which is just about the only significant non-member, and existing members are getting restive about the standard being controlled by the five founders. The big questions (aside from why InfoWorld has to get up so early these days - 6:38am, Ephraim and Dan? Come on…) are who the sources were, and why. The five founders, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba are the only members currently who have a vote on what goes into the final Bluetooth spec, and a 4-1 vote is enough to decide. According to the sources, if Microsoft joined it would want to be a voting member, and would also want the rules changed so decisions would have to be unanimous. So any of the (now six strong) steering committee would have a right of veto. You don't have to stretch your imagination particularly far to see these as natural requirements for the Beast to demand in exchange for its approval. But The Register has sources too, and they say Nokia, Ericsson and Intel have specifically devised the system so that the three of them will carry the day, and they're not about to change it. Three of them? "It would take a very strong person from Toshiba to argue," say our sardonic sources. It probably hasn't escaped your attention that Nokia and Ericsson are shareholders in Symbian, the Psion-inspired dagger aimed at stopping Microsoft dead in the mobile phone and pocket communicator market. So they're not about to change their rules to accommodate the Beast - not when they think they're winning. The attitude of Microsoft's old buddies at Intel can be gauged by a cursory glance at the trial coverage of a few weeks back - hardware Satan isn't going be doing software Satan any favours, if it can avoid it. Which means that if Microsoft absolutely insists on its terms, it doesn't join Bluetooth - it's what you might call an undone deal. But there's another reason why it's difficult to see Microsoft joining - Bluetooth SIG membership requires you to give up all intellectual property rights for technology contributed to Bluetooth, and this isn't the sort of deal you'd ordinarily expect Microsoft to sign. It's also not the sort of deal you'd expect Qualcomm, Microsoft's partner in the WirelessKnowledge joint venture, to sign. Qualcomm has been raising merry hell over IP relevant to G3 wireless systems, and isn't about to give anything away there. But Qualcomm is a Bluetooth member, so it signed. InfoWorld's sources claim Microsoft and "current members who did not read the fine print" are concerned about the IP pooling arrangements, and the thought of the ordinarily truculent Qualcomm screwing up in this way is certainly chucklesome. Has its new friend just discovered it's given away Manhattan for a bunch of beads? But although Microsoft might have a certain interest in having Bluetooth either stopped or amended to its own satisfaction, we at The Register are seriously considering the possibility of other outfits being the ones with axes to grind. Proxim, for example, was bad-mouthing Bluetooth at Comdex , and as Nick Hunn of TDK Systems, a noted Bluetooth aficionado, says, "Breezecom and Proxim have the most to lose if Bluetooth succeeds." Hunn's view is that the as yet largely anonymous critics of Bluetooth are approaching it far too much from a PC industry perspective. "Bluetooth pulls in together two of the most diverse industries we've ever had, PCs and telephony," he says. "But less than 10 per cent of Bluetooth devices are likely to be PCs." That's an obvious problem for companies whose business is based around the PC model - say, Microsoft and wireless networkers like Proxim (Intel is doing some fancy footwork that may mean its business isn't based around the PC model, RSN). They'll raise objections, as apparently Andrew Seybold does, about Bluetooth not supporting IP, because that's the way the whole world is going. But Hunn argues first that this is "totally incorrect" - Bluetooth has been designed to be able to work with IP, and second that a lot of Bluetooth applications will be way, way outside the PC space, and won't need IP. "A lot of the software is going to be embedded, and a lot of it at the moment is ARM-based type OS, VXWorks [that outfit that got friendly with Intel recently] and OS9. That's what you use in the real world. Microsoft might not like it, but it's true." Hunn suggests that there is going to be a conflict over Bluetooth, but that it's likely to be a phone-style turf war rather than the company versus company standards war the computer industry is used to, and that InfoWorld is writing about. The Nokia and Ericsson engineers, he says, are ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) veterans and they're driving the spec from an ETSI perspective. "They know how to write a spec that works," he says, as opposed to "802.11, USB and PCMCIA." Hunn, a good European, takes the view that the ETSI approach to mobile phones worked, and the US approach did not - anecdotal experience of nascent US digital phone networks suggests he may have a point. And Bluetooth, although theoretically global, is being driven hard from Europe, and is likely to succeed first in Europe. You could therefore envisage a phone-style continental rift where the US peeled-off in the direction of HomeRF and/or WAP, while Bluetooth succeeded in Europe, GSM-style. One of the objections to Bluetooth, incidentally, has a particularly interesting aspect to it. It uses the same frequency as 802.11 and HomeRF, so it obviously clashes with them. But a side-effect of Bluetooth design is that this doesn't matter - for Bluetooth devices, that is. "Bluetooth will kill all of them," says Hunn. "It's far more aggressive." ®

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