Ihnatko: The Best Part of Waking Up

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Actually, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Open up my sweetheart's coffeemaker, install a mechanical relay to switch it on and off, design and install a light sensor that detects when the Coffee Ready light turns on. Alter her clock radio's snooze button with some more custom circuits. Wire them both into X10 modules attached to my file server. Write a bunch of AppleScripts to oversee and control the whole mess. Bango . That's all there was to it.

OK, my sweetie didn't understand it, either. But she didn't care. Her alarm clock continued to work as usual. The big difference was that now, when she slapped the snooze bar and returned to the Starship of Chocolate Elves, my Mac started her coffeemaker, and when and only when the coffee was actually ready, my file server terminated her alarm clock's snooze mode.

It worked flawlessly. She went absolutely nuts for it and didn't dump me until after I'd added scripts that independently analyzed, charted, and Web-published her pots-per-day consumption and snooze-to-brew performance timeline.

You should distill three messages from this tale. First, a geek's expressions of devotion tend to skip right past the trite candy-and-flowers stuff and go straight to things that might cause all of your combined possessions to burn to ash. Second, I'm now available, gals. Third and most importantly, wonderful things can happen when simple gizmos have the ability to work together.

Which brings us (after I take a moment to reemphasize that second point) to Bluetooth.

On the Fly

Bluetooth is a standard for wireless connectivity, or in plainer language, it allows devices to use radio rather than wires to communicate with one another. It's sort of like Apple's AirPort, but on a cozier scale. Blue-tooth devices can find each other and link up automatically. You power it up, and bango --it's talking to other Bluetooth devices.

Bluetooth can manage only a tenth of AirPort's speed. And while AirPort can communicate across a football field--including both end zones--Bluetooth reaches only about as far as you can throw a paper airplane. But when it comes to simplicity and convenience, Bluetooth's the winner. Right from your pocket, your Bluetooth-enabled handheld device can sync to your computer the moment you step into the office. No connecting cables, no configuration.

People don't really "get" Blue-tooth yet, and it's no wonder: at present, it's promoted primarily as a cable eradicator. Granted, that's a strong draw if your boss is regularly beating you with the things, but now that almost anyone can post a resume on Monster.com and supposedly find themselves a better job, surely that market is shrinking fast.

Bluetooth's proponents should really be touting it as a simple, low-power, and (hopefully) dirt-cheap way to get devices talking wirelessly. A Bluetooth-enabled cell phone projects a bubble of network access, 20 meters in diameter, all around itself. If that phone is in your pocket, the PDA in your hand can get e-mail; if that phone is in a backpack in the trunk of your car, the hands-free kit clipped to your ear can place and answer calls.

About 2,500 companies, from IBM and Microsoft on down, are participating in the development of Blue-tooth--but the companies that are not in the geekware business are asking the most interesting questions. What if--as promised--Bluetooth really does become simple and inexpensive enough to go into familiar appliances? I wouldn't spend $280 on a "Wake Me When the Coffee's Ready" percolator. But would I spend an extra $15 for a coffeemaker with Blue-tooth? Absolutely. I'd get no use out of it for months, certainly, but one day I'd jump up and down on my clock radio once too often, necessitating a replacement, and would I be willing to spend an extra $15 for . . . ?

This is the sort of stuff Bluetooth's backers are betting on. Your car reports from the driveway that the oil and gas are low, your TiVo sends an alert to your Palm that the Bob Elliott episode of Newhart will air on Thursday, all the doors to your house automatically lock if you try to exit wearing a pair of those Old Navy pants-- baaaad craziness.

But while it's possible to purchase a Bluetooth-enabled phone if you look hard, finding Bluetooth accessories for it is possible only in the same sense that it was possible for that California zillionaire to buy a vacation on the International Space Station. Sure, you've read about it, so you know it's possible, but www.sendarichguytospace.com comes back 404, and no one will tell you where to send the check. Microsoft has even dropped Bluetooth support from its new "No, really, this time it's really as simple as a Mac, honest" rewrite of Windows.

Pod People

Where's Apple in all this? Playing it safe. It's not going to do anything to prevent Bluetooth from working with Macs, but it's also not particularly interested in encouraging development. This could turn into the same sort of misstep that Apple made when it didn't bother to put CD-RW drives in new Macs last year.

The thing is, Apple shouldn't see Bluetooth as competition for AirPort, which (along with all of the other networking hardware that embraces the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard) is gaining broad acceptance. AirPort and Bluetooth complement each other really well. Bluetooth is a swinging-seventies technology: casual, random, cheap, and easy--a quick linkup that gets the job done without a big preamble. AirPort, in contrast, is sturdy and reliable, a technology to use when you're building for the long term.

And Bluetooth has the capacity to become another Pod People technology, the sort of feature that instantly turns a company's customers into members of the sales force. Anyone who owned a Newton is familiar with the syndrome. If you used a MessagePad 2100 on an airplane, suddenly you were the pope of row 21. It drew people in. People wanted demos. They couldn't believe what you could do with it, and then all of a sudden that thing, that logo was what everyone simply had to have.

Someday, even those people who aren't dating major geeks will have alarm clocks that can operate in cahoots with their coffeemakers. It'll be a damned shame if visitors to their houses ask to see the little plastic box that makes all those cool things happen--and don't see an Apple logo on it.

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