Ubiquity means the ability to be everywhere.
Look up. Santa Claus has it. Look down. Star thistle has it.
Coke and Microsoft have it.
The executives at San Diego’s Widcomm Inc. want some of the ubiquity promised by Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is a radio technology that allows devices to communicate with each other over a short range, maybe 30 feet. It can hook a computer to a printer. Or it can hook communication devices into wireless networks. Widcomm , short for wireless Internet and data/voice communications , concentrates on the latter.
Though scarce now, Bluetooth-equipped products will start popping up in the first quarter of next year, said several sources. Many in the industry are looking for big sales in the 2001 Christmas season, said Hiep Pham, Widcomm’s president and CEO.
Then the numbers should grow.
Research company Dataquest has predicted 79 percent of digital handsets will incorporate Bluetooth technology by 2002. There will be 1.4 billion Bluetooth-enabled products by 2005, according to Joyce Putscher of Cahners In-Stat Group.
The number of companies working in the Bluetooth standard has now topped 2,000, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Industry officials predict uses for Bluetooth will multiply as Bluetooth chips get cheaper.
In the future, a person might use Bluetooth to synchronize the data on her personal digital assistant (PDA) and her home computer, just by coming within range.
Online On The Road
Pham said highway travelers making a stop at a gas station could get their e-mail on their PDA or phone from the station’s Bluetooth node. Airports, hotels and malls might have such network access points as well.
Widcomm plans to be an original equipment manufacturer for a base station, said Pham, noting the company sees “good business value” in manufacturing the diminutive unit.
Up to now, Putscher said, hardware was not something she thought of when she tought of Widcomm.
The Scottsdale, Ariz., analyst , actually director of consumer and converging markets for Cahners In-Stat Group , describes Widcomm as “an early leader” in protocol stack software as well as adapter design for Bluetooth.
Software license fees will be an important revenue stream for Widcomm, and already software has brought the company some buzz.
In June, the company’s protocol stack software became the first product in the world to be certified by the Bluetooth Qualification Body. Its protocol stack was a finalist at last week’s Most Innovative New Products Awards given by UCSD Connect.
Compaq Computer Corp. announced plans last month to use Widcomm protocol software in its next notebook computers. Acer NeWeb plans to ship it in PDA modules, universal serial bus adapters and an embedded module for a notebook computer.
The company is developing technology with Philips Semiconductors, one of several companies that provided Widcomm with second-round venture funding. Widcomm is also working with investors Psion and Texas Instruments.
The Sorrento Mesa company plans to do business with other familiar names in electronics, Pham said. And it plans to ship Bluetooth software developer kits for Windows and the Visor in January.
Though there are upward of 2,000 companies working in Bluetooth, Widcomm is one of “select group” providing Bluetooth protocol stock and reference designs, said Putscher. The company is “not quite in a class by themselves,” but almost, she said.
The Bluetooth standard is not proprietary. It is an open standard that is licensed royalty-free. Widcomm, nevertheless, has applied for 26 patents related to Bluetooth networking, said Pham.
Pham said he believes having Widcomm intellectual property in many devices, plus a nine- to 12-month head start on the networking side of Bluetooth, gives his company an advantage in the market.
Slowdowns In Chip Development
Still, slowdowns in developing basic chip technology have delayed the release of Bluetooth equipment, said Larry Mittag, vice president and chief technologist with Stellcom Inc., a San Diego computer engineering firm working in wireless technologies.
Mittag said several factors could affect how Widcomm makes money, including how fast Bluetooth rolls out, whether a potential client decides to buy Widcomm’s solution or engineer one by itself, and how Bluetooth chip prices fall.
While companies that adopt Bluetooth early may charge high prices for their products, the expected slide in chip prices may call for selling in volume at very thin margins, Mittag said.
Some published estimates put the price of Bluetooth chips at $30 now. They could hit $5 around 2004 or 2005, according to both Mittag and Putscher. As that happens, Bluetooth chips will migrate into a variety of consumer products and even into toys, the two said.
Betting on a technology still in its infancy is a risk, Pham acknowledged in a recent interview, though he said the real risk was when he started the company, not now.
Widcomm took shape in 1998. Pham and co-founder Rajiv Kumar, the company’s chief technology officer, knew they wanted to work in short-range radio. The question was what type.
An alternative standard called 802.11 offered lots of power, but it was more expensive and took up more space.
Widcomm’s founders decided they wanted a technology that would fit in cellular phones and personal digital assistants. Bulky 802.11 would not. Little Bluetooth would.
“That’s important,” Pham said. The ability to fit in those and other devices creates ubiquity. And ubiquity, plus ease of use, are two important factors for making a wireless technology into a success, he said.
Before coming to Widcomm, Pham worked for Uniden, growing the Japanese company’s R & D; center here from one person to 300.
Pham was born in South Vietnam, which he left in 1974 at age 17, after getting a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal. He went on to receive a master of science in electrical engineering from Ottawa University.
“Land of opportunity” is the first phrase he uses to describe the United States. He arrived here in 1985.
Even Canada is “more calm and relaxed” than the United States, which he said offers an environment for taking risks as well as capital.
Like he did with Uniden, Pham is growing Widcomm. The company went from 15 employees in August 1999 to 60 employees in May and now has about 130 employees. It still has engineering and sales slots to fill, Pham said.
Revenues were $1 million in the 1999 calendar year and are projected at $4 million this year, he said. Pham looks for $16 million to $20 million in revenues in 2001. He plans to break even in 2002.
The company received initial financing from Enterprise Partners last year. Texas Instruments led a second round of financing in June, which totaled $35 million. Other second-round contributors included Alcatel, Conexant, Philips, Psion and Sienna Holdings.
Widcomm will have its IPO when both the market and the company are ready, Pham said, noting it could happen in the next 12 months.
By then people will be shopping for their 2001 Christmas presents. And if all goes as planned, Bluetooth will be on a trajectory from obscurity to ubiquity.