With the backing of some of the biggest names in computers and consumer electronics, the wireless voice and data technology known as Bluetooth has attracted tremendous media and consumer attention over the last 18 months.

But as the launch of the first Bluetooth products looms in late autumn, even its strongest proponents are worried that hype and competing claims about what it can do could cause user confusion or at worst even sink the technology before it sets sail.

The media and consumers have flocked to demonstrations of Bluetooth technology at trade shows around the world, dozens if not hundreds of companies have fixed launch dates for products by now, and the main backers of the technology say that more than 2,000 vendors have at least expressed interest in incorporating the technology into products ranging from mobile phones to laptop computers to personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Bluetooth has the potential to let all sorts of devices link up, and its proponents paint tantalising pictures of how it could work.

"You could have a pair of mufflers - the headphones over your ears - and be mowing the lawn outside, listening to your Walkman when your phone rings inside and automatically stops the music to tell you that there is a call which you can then take," suggested Christina Bj"rknader, marketing and communications manager for Ericsson, a major Bluetooth backer.

Her scenario continues: depending on whether your PDA has voice capabilities, you could even check your calendar while on the phone call and add an appointment or make a change. "Once you're done with the call, you can tell the headset to hang up the phone, which will simply restart the music from where you left off and you then finish mowing the lawn, all without taking your hands off the mower," she said.

But some Bluetooth proponents warn about overselling the technology.

"People are beginning to get a little wild about what you can do with Bluetooth," said Nick Hunn, research and development director for TDK Systems, at the recent Networks Telecom 2000 conference in Birmingham. Hunn, who has been involved with the development of the Bluetooth standard from the technology's inception, has also worked on incorporating Bluetooth into existing TDK products such as PC Cards, USB Adapters and network routers.

"In these early days Bluetooth won't be cheap as companies try to recoup development costs. But it's very important that we don't raise expectations to begin with. On day one, Bluetooth is a cable replacement system: don't expect anymore at first," Hunn said

The idea behind Bluetooth is to avoid the inconvenience of cables by enabling devices such as mobile phones, PCs, printers and handheld computers to communicate with one another over short distances using low-power radio signals to transmit data. Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz frequency band and the original Bluetooth specification calls for output power of less than 10 milliwatts.

At events like Networks Telecom, vendors have stoked the hype for the technology. "My personal belief is that Bluetooth is the most exciting technology to hit this industry since GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), especially since it is so easy to use," said David Lock, commercial strategy manager for U.K. mobile phone operator Orange.

However, there has been some controversy over what exactly Bluetooth is capable of. For example, whether it would make a good wireless LAN technology is the subject of debate.