Personal Eddy-fication: Bluetooth on the Mac

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It’s Eddy Week here at Macworld, which means that in addition to naming our annual Eddy awards, we get to talk about products and technologies that we personally think are Eddy-worthy but didn't quite make the cut for the actual awards. (Kind of like those “minor” Academy Awards that are never televised.)

As a satisfied user of Bluetooth, one of the coolest technologies around, I’ve been wondering for a couple years now why it hasn’t spread like wildfire. Granted, it’s been slowly growing in popularity, with a good number of Bluetooth phones, headsets, keyboards, and mice being released over the past year. But it’s nowhere near as popular as it should be, or as pervasive as I expected it would be at this point. After first playing with it two years ago, I figured that by this time every computer would have it and every mouse, keyboard, and phone would be using it to connect.

I recently discovered the reason for this puzzling situation: Because 90% of the world uses Windows.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a Windows-bashing column. I’ve owned a number of Windows PCs over the years, and own one now. And although I much prefer using Mac OS X and Apple hardware, Windows has come a long way since the usability disaster that was Windows 3. x . But if your only experience with Bluetooth is on a Windows PC, I can understand why you’d think that Bluetooth isn’t ready for prime time and, therefore, why most of the Windows-using public hasn’t embraced the technology.

The reason I only recently discovered this apparent Windows/Bluetooth antipathy is that until a couple weekends ago I’d never actually tried to use a Bluetooth device with my Windows PC. But I spent hours and hours that weekend trying to get a popular Bluetooth mouse (the Logitech MX 900) working with my Windows PC (a factory-configured Dell Dimension 4700C running Windows XP Professional) to no avail. First I diligently followed the instructions that came with the MX 900, which included installing the latest Bluetooth and Logitech software and then connecting the Logitech USB Bluetooth hub. After several required restarts and configuration steps, the Logitech Bluetooth connection software appeared onscreen... and just sat there. The mouse didn’t work, and the computer couldn’t see it (or any other Bluetooth devices, for that matter).

To add insult to injury, Windows kept popping up a “New Hardware Wizard,” claiming that it had found new hardware and needed to install the correct drivers for it. (Never mind that I’d already installed those drivers.) When I tried to cancel the dialog, it would instantly pop up again. And again. And again. It was like a cruel practical joke—an annoying dialog I couldn’t dismiss. I finally succumbed to the New Hardware Wizard’s demands and decided to give it a chance; I thought maybe it could help me out. No such luck. It said it couldn’t find the appropriate drivers and asked me to exit the Wizard. Guess what happened next... Up pops the Wizard again. And again. And again.

So I finally gave up and uninstalled all traces of the Logitech software, thinking I’d avoid using the Logitech Bluetooth hub and instead use a Belkin USB Bluetooth adapter I had handy. (It’s gotten good reviews, so I figured it might have a better chance of working.) The only problem is that the Logitech uninstaller hadn’t removed the six or seven communication device entries that were created when the Logitech software was installed, so I was still getting the New Hardware Wizard dialog, which evidently keeps going and going and going, with more endurance than the Energizer Bunny.

After removing these entries using Device Manager, I installed the Belkin software and USB dongle. Success! Or so I thought—this time Windows seemed to think it had Bluetooth capability, but I still couldn’t connect to the Logitech mouse or any other Bluetooth devices in the vicinity. (Nor could the Bluetooth-enabled Power Mac or PowerBook in the office see the Windows machine.) After an hour or two playing around with various settings, I gave up and uninstalled the Belkin dongle and software. (Oh, and the new communication device entries—apparently theses are common “souvenirs” of botched software installations.)

My last hope was to revert to a “clean” Windows system and try the Logitech software/hardware one more time. All that did was reintroduce me to Mr. New Hardware Wizard again. And again. And again. Remember that movie Groundhog Day ? It was kinda like that.

It was after this circus of installs/uninstalls/configurations/restarts—is there anything that doesn’t require a restart in Windows?—that I fully appreciated what Apple has accomplished in terms of Bluetooth compatibility in Mac OS X. I’ve had a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone for a couple years now: first a Sony-Ericsson T68i and then a T610. Back when I got the T68i, no Macs came with built-in Bluetooth, so I bought a D-Link USB Bluetooth dongle. I had to download the drivers for that early version of Mac OS X, but after doing so and plugging in the D-Link adapter, everything worked swell. I used Salling Clicker (then called Sony Ericsson Clicker) to turn my T68i into a remote control for iTunes, and I conveniently transferrred contact information and images to and from the phone.

Nowadays it’s even easier: Bluetooth support is built into every copy of Mac OS X, all PowerBooks and iBooks include built-in Bluetooth, and desktop Macs can be equipped with built-in Bluetooth as an option when you order (or you can add Bluetooth at a later time by simply plugging in a $30 USB dongle). There’s no software to install; you just click the Bluetooth icon in the menu bar and choose “Turn Bluetooth On” and you’re done. When I got my new PowerBook, I had it paired it with my T610 phone, my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, and my RadTech BT-500 Bluetooth mouse in a matter of minutes, and they’ve all worked flawlessly since. I’m still using Salling Clicker; I sync my calendar and contact info with my phone via iSync; I use BuddyPop to display the name and picture of callers on my computer’s screen whenever someone calls my phone; I use a Bluetooth headset with iChat; and I transfer files between computers and phones without any complex setup or configuration—it’s as simple as choosing Send File or Browse Device from the Bluetooth menu in the menu bar.

After two years of Bluetooth done right, I had (wrongly) assumed that this was the way it worked for everyone. I know better now. Bluetooth on Windows is not the same as Bluetooth on a Mac; if it was, Bluetooth would be the biggest thing since USB, printer manufacturers would be including Bluetooth support with all their printers, and Verizon Wireless might have some decent Bluetooth phone support.

Hopefully Bluetooth will hang on until Windows gets it right. In the meantime, we Mac users can enjoy it the way we have been for a couple years now. And I award my personal Eddy Award to Apple for Bluetooth done right.

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