Making a business out of Bluetooth

It's a cliché that the mobile is the ultimate personal device, and companies are continually finding ways of turning that into a business.

Like BlueAnt, a Melbourne-based Bluetooth specialist. It does only Bluetooth, and only for voice. Its products range from a speakerphone to a hands-free for motorbike helmets.

It's a fair-sized opportunity. The office headset market, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other wireless, is worth $800 million.

Privately-held BlueAnt says it has 40% of the US market and 60% of the Australian wireless hands-free market.  It expects up to 100 million Bluetooth headsets to be sold in 2009.

Its latest product is the world's first voice-activated mobile headset, which carried off the best cellphone accessory award at the CTIA event in April.

This is not your in-your-face call center-style headset. The tiny device is just 4cm in length and weighs 10g, and packs in a lot of smarts.  Unlike most voice-driven apps, the voice-control function doesn't require any time-consuming training. You clip it on and start barking instructions in English or Mandarin.

The noise reduction function produces better sound quality than a handset itself. It removes about 25-30 decibels (dB) of noise; a regular handset removes about 10-15 dB, according to CEO Taisen Maddern.

It's a product-driven firm, where of its 54 employees are involved in R&D, ranging from acoustic engineering to headset form factors for differently-shaped heads. On the horizon is a new product that will cut wind noise, Maddern said.

Like a lot of peripheral suppliers, BlueAnt prefers to sell through operators,  which offers cellcos an advantage then often overlook. Certainly, it's a more reliable bet than risky and ephemeral mobile apps. Its headsets offer the kind of value-add that helps retain customers and, in markets where vehicle hands-free is compulsory, improve minutes-of-use and call completion.

The self-funded company is already in ten markets and is "aggressively targeting Asia", according to Maddern. It has signed some distribution deals in the region, including SingTel, and is looking for more operator partners.

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