Wi-Fi Gets Going

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Critics argue that Wi-Fi, with 165 products available, as opposed to Bluetooth's dozen-odd devices, is set to become the de facto standard. Those are fighting words to Bluetooth sympathizers. "It really gets under my skin to see people mixing up the two," complains Joswiak. "They're two totally different things." While Wi-Fi is a powerful local networker, Bluetooth is an ideal cable replacement and networker of small, power-starved devices. The two don't overlap much in function.

Indeed, after two years of embarrassing delays and technical glitches, Bluetooth consumer products are finally trickling out--mainly as cell phone, computer and PDA attachments made by companies such as 3Com, Palm, Compaq and Motorola. Simon Ellis, chairman of marketing for Bluetooth SIG, says 9 million Bluetooth chipsets will be shipped this year. But most Bluetooth-enabled consumer hardware will be out next year. Meanwhile, Bluetooth is earning its stripes in industrial applications. UPS, for instance, announced a $100 million plan last month to use Bluetooth in ring scanners for package sorters and Wi-Fi in its world-wide mobile network. The project, industry analysts say, is a model of how the standards can complement each other.

But not any time soon. Unfortunately, the two standards interfere with each other physically, if not in the market. Both occupy the 2.4-GHz spectrum, which is already polluted by cordless phones and microwave ovens. One possible solution is a new wireless LAN standard--cleverly named 802.11a--that accesses the 5-GHz band of the radio spectrum and races data along at 54 Mbps. Problem is, it can't understand a thing 802.11b says to it. The first products built on 802.11a are due out soon. If these don't pan out, something else that does soon will. Either way, the age of tangled cables is coming to an end. You'll have to find something else to trip over.

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