Mad Dog 21/21: The Dry Fish Affair
December 13, 2004 Hesh Wiener
In Scandinavian countries, like Minnesota, it’s lutfisk season. Lutfisk (or lutefisk) is a special kind of dried fish, often cod, that, when hydrated and cooked, is a potent source of fragrance, holiday cheer–and opinions. It evokes traditions going back several hundred years at least, and possibly as far as the reign of 10th Century Danish King Harald Blatand, or King Harold Bluetooth. Lutfisk is to the infinitely more powerful olfactory signaling food surströmming, fermented Baltic herring, as Bluetooth wireless networking is to the 802.11 family of communication technologies.
If you must know about Bluetooth, all you have to do these days is look around. Bluetooth transceiver circuits, which only cost a couple bucks in volume, have been added to mobile phones, laptop computers, PDAs, wireless headsets, fancy cars, and a growing number of connectivity gadgets.
Basically, Bluetooth is a low-power, short-range spread spectrum networking technology that uses the same 2.4 GHz band as 801.11b and 802.11g devices, microwave ovens, and some cordless phones. It’s an open standard with three defined power classes. Class 3 is a 1 milliwatt (0dBm) scheme that reliably travels only about 10 centimeters (or 4 inches) but probably can traverse a longer distance under optimal conditions. Class 2 is the most common type, with 2.5 milliwatt (4dBm) power, which lets it span about 10 meters (30 feet); this class is typical of wireless headsets and mobile phones (including the kind that offer a wireless connection to in-car audio systems). Class 1 is the big gun, or possibly big peashooter, with 10 milliwatt (20dBm) power and a theoretical range of up to 100 meters; it’s suitable for tiny networks and wireless laptop docking systems. Because current Bluetooth technology is defined in a way that lets the central device (such as a laptop) talk to only seven other devices, it’s not a contender in the 802.11 hotspot world. On the other hand, Bluetooth is an absolute no-brainer.
Using Bluetooth is easier than preparing lutfisk. To make lutfisk you need to soak air-dried cod (but other varieties will work) a week or two, changing the water a lot, then soak it in a lye solution (lye is lute, in Swedish or Danish), then soak it again in clear water for another week or so, and finally you boil it for 20 minutes. You will never settle arguments about what sauce, if any, to put on it, but cream sauce and a peppery butter sauce are the market leaders. Is it worth it? Millions of people think so. Billions of people probably do not.
Bluetooth is a lot quicker. A Bluetooth transceiver knows its roles and knows what kind of gadget it is built into. It can share this information with any other Bluetooth transceiver it finds within its broadcast range. Once they locate each other, two Bluetooth devices engage in a brief ritual to get communication, called pairing, started. In some cases, it’s all automatic, particularly if the devices have been previously introduced. In other cases, the user may have to help.
If you want to add a limited function device, such as a wireless headset, to a base system, such as a mobile phone or a laptop, it’s pretty easy, even if the two have never before met. When the devices find each other, it’s love at first sight. The smarter gizmo, meaning the mobile phone or laptop, not the user, asks for a key code, which in the case of a headset will be 0000 or 1234, and pairing completes.
Hooking up is only a tad more complicated if you want to mate two multifunction items, such as a laptop and a mobile phone. Depending on the software in your laptop and the firmware in your mobile phone, this is likely a two-step procedure. First, you tell the master, which would be a laptop in this case, to look for Bluetooth buddies and make a connection. The result will be a message saying the computer found your cell phone and another telling you that it has decided to use a particular four-digit number as an encryption key. Next, the cell phone, which you’ve put in pairing mode, will say it’s gotten a pickup line from a flirtatious computer and needs that encryption key, which you punch into the keypad. That’s it.
Depending on the software you have in your laptop, the Bluetooth link can use the mobile phone as a modem, it can let you synchronize whatever passes for PDA functionality in the phone with software on your laptop, and it can pass two-way audio from a Bluetooth headset through the phone so you can make a call using a phone book in your computer or phone and talk as you work. Cell system wireless broadband is always on, and if a mobile phone is clever enough, it should be able to let you make a voice call while you are online, more or less the way you can use a DSL line for data while you use the same pair or wires to make voice calls. If this year’s cell phone can’t do all this at once, just wait for next year’s model.
In the United States, which is not quite as wireless savvy as Japan or Europe, you’ll see it all happening just about a year from now. Portable electronic devices, like lutfisk parties, are popular for Christmas. Rarely, some kind of mobile phone or PDA will catch on, even if it debuts in the off season, but most vendors find that gadgets aimed at the stocking get off to a faster start if they’re aimed at holiday season buyers. Before a year is up, that mobile phone or PDA will most likely be outmoded by a newer, snazzier version. Any portable electronic gadget that survives for more than one season gets to be called a classic. Lutfisk, at least as long as it’s kept dry, lasts longer.
It’s hard to believe that people who are willing to eat lutfisk, such as Finns and Swedes, are also able to develop mobile phones, such as Nokias and Ericssons, machines that can provide wireless broadband in a quarter-pound package, but that is in fact the way it is. Ericsson is, as you may know, not going it alone anymore, and instead provides mobile phones through its joint venture with Sony, a firm run by people who prefer sushi to its culinary opposite, lutfisk.
This partnership may baffle coastal Americans, who believe that people in Tokyo know a lot more about dining than people in Helsinki. How do they ever decide what to serve at a working lunch? It all makes one wonder how Linus Torvalds feels about sushi and lutfisk. If his versatile software is any reflection of his dining habits, he probably enjoys both, and the quenelles called gefilte fish, too.
Operating systems and fish are more scalable than Bluetooth, although the industry consortium that is mapping out a future for the technology remains optimistic. If only one in 10 mobile phones comes with Bluetooth capability, more than 60 million Bluetooth devices will get into the hands of consumers during the next year. And it’s beginning to look as if more than 10 percent of the world’s cell phones will get Bluetooth, not because mobile professionals want to use the phones as modems, but because Bluetooth offers a superior way to provide hands-free technology for people who phone and drive at the same time.
So far, add-in Bluetooth adapters for computers are costly compared with where the market will drive prices in the near future, but they are already around half the price of add-in 802.11 cards. All that could change quite a bit if wireless equipment vendors figure out that they might want to offer gizmos that speak both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. There are a few products that offer both now, but cheap circuits that do it all for both are still on the way. Before long, any device that can take advantage of wireless technology will have to include all the options any prospective buyer might want in order to succeed. The current menu, with Bluetooth, 802.11, and a two or three mobile phone protocols on it, could grow, particularly if software makes the choice of medium automatic or at least simple enough to satisfy non-technical users.
But that’s enough serious talk. The holidays are nigh. And with the holidays comes our annual chance to share what we believe is the best way to serve lutfisk. After boiling the fish and preparing the sauce, you place the fish on a wooden plank. Pour the sauce over the fish. Wait 15 minutes. Now throw away the lutfisk and eat the plank.