Bluetooth finally reaches ten (years, not users)
Happy 'toothday - or is it?
Last week the Bluetooth Special Interest Group celebrated ten years since its formation for the purpose of defining and promoting the radio-networking standard that was supposed to link everything together. But has Bluetooth actually done anything more than enable everyone to look like a twat with a glowing blue ear?
When originally proposed, as a cable replacement, Bluetooth was promised to provide everything from wireless internet access to mesh networks, but the reality has turned out to be a lot more mundane. The standard is now looking to competitors to create the functionality it originally promised.
Things started to change during the long wait for Bluetooth hardware: with developers (this author included) reduced to creating applications using PDAs with Wi-Fi cards as proof-of-concept to keep investors interested – something that became more practical as Wi-Fi reduced in cost and increased in ubiquity. By the time Bluetooth devices became available Wi-Fi was well on the way to becoming the default wireless standard, despite the greater flexibility Bluetooth offered.
Like pulling teeth
Bluetooth is defined by a number of profiles - ways in which the wireless devices were expected to be used. The standard was then developed to make those usage models possible, though that was no guarantee that anyone would ever use them.
Most notable of these lost profiles is the Intercom Profile: enabling two people to speak to each other from opposite sides of a room – up to ten metres apart. The fact that shouting has a roughly equivalent range was apparently missed by the SIG, and even upping the range to 100 metres (in perfect conditions) didn't get that particular profile widely deployed.
Almost as odd as the Intercom profile was the idea of Scatternets. With every Bluetooth device able to communicate with seven other devices, it was also possible for any Bluetooth device to host one network while being a participant in another, and route communications between the two. Unfortunately, most devices struggle to maintain two Bluetooth connections even now, let alone route information between networks. Last year we asked Mike Foley, head of the Bluetooth SIG, if he could point us in the direction of someone, anyone, who was using Bluetooth Scatternets in anger – he couldn't.
The LAN Access Profile wasn't as ambitious as Scatternets, it was simply undercut by Wi-Fi which could offer higher speeds with less apparent complexity. Bluetooth fans, this author amongst them, would moan on about battery life and the fact that 1Mb/sec was more than enough for accessing email and web pages, but the Wi-Fi crowd simply had an easier sell – "it's like Ethernet, only without wires". You can still buy Bluetooth access points, though not a lot of devices support the profile these days.
But not everything the SIG did was wrong; the headset profile that attracted little attention in the early days of Bluetooth has proved to be its saviour ever since. Mobile phone shops love selling accessories - the margin is greater and the sales process easier - but there's a limit to how many novelty clip-cases one can flog. So when Bluetooth started to appear in phones the shops quickly realised they could make a mint selling headsets.
In Europe the shops have very close relationships with the network operators, who are the handset manufacturer's biggest customers. When the shops suddenly demanded Bluetooth on handsets, the operators took their demand to the manufacturers, who happily complied. In the USA shops are more independent, which goes some way towards explaining why Bluetooth hasn't hit America in the same way, at least not yet.
The popularity of headsets has created a perception that Bluetooth is a mobile phone technology for carrying voice - a long way from the desktop-cable-replacement originally envisioned. The SIG continues trying to change that perception, launching applications such as TransSend to try and get people using Bluetooth for something other than looking demented while talking on the phone, but the perception is hard to break.
Stereo headphones are something punters can understand, as a derivation from a technology already providing mono sound - brushing aside the fact that the two mechanisms are technically unrelated. Sending music to a speaker system naturally follows on from that, but still pegs the technology as an audio-streaming solution rather than anything more serious.
The sad thing about Bluetooth is that its most powerful feature is the one that puts off the majority of users. The Service Discovery Protocol, which allows a device to cast around and introduce itself to other devices, then ask those devices what services they can provide, is superb, and should provide an elegant user experience. Unfortunately appalling interface design, and the popularity of the technology, have conspired to make pairing two Bluetooth devices far more complicated than it needs to be.
Hello, is there anybody out there?
So complex, indeed, that the Bluetooth SIG is now adopting NFC (Near Field Communications) as a way of exchanging credentials by tapping two devices together.
Bluetooth's other great drawback - speed - is also being addressed by using Bluetooth to set up and maintain Wi-Fi or Ultra-Wide-Band connections where two Bluetooth devices discover they have a high-speed option in common.
Even the supposed strength of Bluetooth, the low power consumption, is being challenged by the technology-formerly-known-as-WiBree – now to be called "Bluetooth Ultra" or something like that. Whatever it ends up being christened, the low-power standard shares nothing with its parent beyond a frequency and some branding.
Bluetooth has always been a collection of standards, nicking data formats and protocols from other systems and sending them over Bluetooth-radio connections - but soon the Bluetooth-radio itself might simply be a channel that allows devices to negotiate a better way of communicating.
In another ten years I'm confident all my electronics will be using Bluetooth, but whether that standard will share more than a brand with what I'm using today is more debatable. ®