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Bluetooth to outship Wi-Fi five to one – report

So much for the hotspot hype, says Forrester Research

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Exclusive Bluetooth will become the dominant wireless technology, building market share by stealth as the Wi-Fi hotspot bubble bursts, market watcher Forrester Research has forecast.

It's undoubtedly a contentious claim. Wi-Fi is being backed by some of the IT industry's biggest names - Intel, Apple, Cisco et al - not to mention a host of new and established service providers - BT, T-Mobile, The Cloud etc. - keen to tap into a perceived demand for high speed data access on the move.

Bluetooth, by contrast, has largely failed to grab the public's attention as a 'must have' and has widely been dismissed as a technology set to be out-evolved by ubiquitous Wi-Fi in the home and the office.

Both technologies serve different roles, of course. Wi-Fi is a networking technology, Bluetooth is all about connecting peripherals to a host system. But there's sufficient overlap for some observers to see the two locked in a pitched battle for WLAN market leadership.

Forrester's argument, outlined in its report WLAN and Bluetooth Update: Beyond the Hype, that Bluetooth will 'win' centres on volume shipments. This year will see the annual number of Bluetooth devices that have shipped begin to diverge from the volume of Wi-Fi enabled products - to date they've been roughly neck and neck.

According to Forrester, some 40 million Bluetooth-enabled phones have shipped worldwide. Over 2000 companies are currently developing more than 1000 products - and that's just the ones registered with the Bluetooth SIG. So far, more than 25 million WLAN devices have shipped worldwide and 741 products have been approved for interoperability by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the WLAN world's answer to the Bluetooth SIG.

Forrester forecasts that by 2008, there will be 286.5 million Bluetooth enabled phones, PDAs and notebooks in Europe alone - not to mention all the wireless headsets, keyboards, mice and webcams that will use Bluetooth too. Around 77 per cent of phones, 60 per cent of PDAs and 67 per cent of notebooks will have the technology built in. Chip prices are falling, making building the technology into new products cheaper, and the arrival of Bluetooth-WLAN combo chips - leveraging the fact they both use the 2.4GHz band - next year will make incorporating Bluetooth a no brainer, the research company believes.

Wi-Fi devices will number 53.4 million. While 80 per cent of notebooks that ship in 2008 will feature Wi-Fi, only 34 per cent of PDAs will, and just two per cent of cellphones - cellular network providers want data, and the revenue that comes from it, flowing over their networks, not someone else's.

Of course, many devices will support both technologies: 27 per cent of PDAs and 65 per cent of notebooks - just one per cent notebooks will offer Bluetooth alone, while 33 per cent of PDAs will and so will 75 per cent of cellphones.

The bottom line, says Forrester, is that Bluetooth devices will outnumber WLAN units five to one. The implication is that Bluetooth will therefore become the dominant wireless technology. Is that a fair conclusion?

We're not so sure. We like Bluetooth, and think it definitely has a future, but being available for use in five times as many devices as WLAN technology doesn't make it more important than the other. Looking at Forrester's figures, Bluetooth's lead in 2008 will come about solely because it's included in phones - 239 million units out of 286.5 million. That leaves just 47.5 million Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and notebooks.

Since only two per cent of phones will support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (none will offer Wi-Fi alone), of the 53.4 million WLAN-enabled devices shipping in 2008, 47.2 million of them will be PDAs and notebooks. So WLAN and Bluetooth are effectively neck-and-neck, when you take phones out of the equation.

Some PDAs and notebooks will offer only Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but the vast majority will offer both. So while Wi-Fi isn't going to kill off Bluetooth, Bluetooth isn't going to rule the roost either. Both will become equally pervasive in devices, and used for different purposes: Wi-Fi when you're in a hotspot, Bluetooth when you're not - it will hook your device up to the Net via a 3G phone link.

How available will hotspots be? If the current mania surrounding the technology is anything to go by, they'll be everywhere. Forrester doesn't agree, and calculates that by 2008 only 7.7 million Europeans will be using public hotspots, 6.2 million of them connecting via a notebook, the remaining 1.5 million via a PDA. Just because a notebook or a PDA has Wi-Fi built in doesn't mean the device's owner will use it. Forrester reckons that nearly a third of Wi-Fi enabled notebooks won't actually be used for wireless networking. Of those that will, the vast majority will be connected to private networks, not public ones.

That calls into question the assumptions behind today's hotspot business models, warns Forrester. The question is, will the hotspot business contract - from a geographical perspective (fewer hotspots), as well as in terms of the market size - as the better to cater for the smaller user base that is willing to pay plenty for public Net access? Or will the low cost of Wi-Fi kit persuade them to take a longer term view, focusing on building the widespread coverage needed to make public Wi-Fi access a sufficiently ad hoc activity to attract the broadest base of users - with a low-price business model to match?

Today, Forrester favours the former, but we can envisage the latter, coming into play after the bubble has burst. ®

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