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‘Social Hardware’ nears with Bluetooth iPod

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Bluetooth is coming to the iPod, in the shape of third-party add-ons. The first vendor to break cover, Extreme Tech's Jim Louderback has discovered, is XtremeMac, which is creating a Bluetooth streaming attachment that beams the iPod's audio to speakers: which could be headphones, a car hi-fi or a home entertainment center. XtremeMac uses InfiniteRange's RangeScan chipset.

It would immediately solve a problem for drivers in countries where ultra short-range transmitters, such as the iTrip, have been banned by the regulatory authorities. And Jim's pretty excited: he calls it the first useful Bluetooth application he's seen.

But it's only baby steps in the evolution of the platform; and a Bluetooth audio profile is the first logical stage. However, Bluetooth-equipped portable storage devices are already under development (Toshiba already sells one). Intel calls this device category the Personal Server, and in Intel's concept devices they are equipped with both Bluetooth and 802.11. Microsoft this week delayed its reference platform for a very similar concept. But Apple knows, as every other ODM (original device manufacturer), that it need not be bound by Redmond blueprints.

The idea of sharing music with strangers - and, in the manner of Last Tango In Paris, you don't even have to know their names - proved very popular when we discussed it a year ago. Readers particularly liked the idea of a "What am I listening to?" option. This really is, to paraphrase Silicon Valley's latest VC bubble, "social hardware".

So the next 18 months could be very interesting. In one very plausible scenario, we'll first, see ODMs add Bluetooth for wireless headphones and car stereos. Then they'll add OBEX support for file exchange, and quite possible some hair-raising hacks to the Bluetooth specification to allow one-to-many short-range streams. (Underneath the many layers of specifications, Bluetooth is simply a serial protocol, so this could require some ingenuity). Then, a couple of years after that, we can envisage Ultra Wide Band allowing huge file transfers in devices which require very little power. You'll be able to beam a movie to a companion on the bus faster than you could describe it.

Which is where the plan runs into practical obstacles. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits the sale or importation into the United States of any device whose primary purpose is copyright circumvention. We can expect Hollywood and the RIAA to push even harder for DRM into playback devices such as the iPod.

Then again, the DMCA is a uniquely American and (soon to be) European problem. To bet that the rest of the world won't build such a low-cost device is to bet that people the world over suddenly lose their appetite for sharing music. And who's going to bet against that? ®

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