Bluetooth and the Great Disconnect


…and then there were three

The thing I loved about Bluetooth is that it worked. I mean: really worked. On any device, under any operating system, anywhere in the world.

Not anymore.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group which owns and maintains the system has given up on full interoperability. Version 4, which was  announced last year, is not compatible with those millions of gadgets, computers, laptops and smartphones people use today, or at least not fully compatible. Instead, there are now three different flavors of Bluetooth: “Classic”, “Smart” and “Smart Ready”.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is.

Bluetooth, we elderly nerds remember, was developed back in the 90ies in Scandinavia by phone makers Ericsson and Nokia as an answer to the infrared solutions for getting rid of cables favored by the PC industry (HP, IBM, etc.). The name, by the way, harks back to king Harald Blåtand (literally: “blue tooth”) who conquered and Christianized Denmark.

Today, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group is “owned” by Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Toshiba and Lenovo and has more than 15.000 members worldwide who are allowed to use the technology royalty free as long as they submit to rigorous compatibility vetting by the SIG.

Bluetooth has lots of advantages and one big drawback for mobile applications: It sucks your gadget’s battery dry faster than you can say “green IT”. It was a matter of time, therefore, until the consortium had to do something if they didn’t want to lose their dominant position in a world of connected, always-on mobile internet devices.

There were two ways of doing this: Try to coax out some incremental improvements from the existing standard or start again from scratch. If what Suke Jawanda, the Chief Marketing Officer of Bluetooth SIG, told me when we met today in Munich is true, it was a soul-wrenching decision. After all, there are almost four billion (!) enabled devices out there, with 2 billion more being added this year alone, so cutting them off is not something you undertake lightly.

But that is what happened: New, low-energy Bluetooth 4 is a completely new technology.

On the other hand, it is really, really neat. You can stick it in tiny devices and run it for months or even years on a button cell. Motorola is introducing a wireless headset for joggers that can monitor your heartbeat through the earplugs and use Bluetooth 4 to send data to your smartphone while you listen to high-quality audio.

The cost of this is compatibility. To make full use of the new possibilities, you will need a smartphone with a so-called “dual-mode” chip – one that can perform both old-fashioned Bluetooth (now called “Classic”) and the new Version 4 kind (called “Smart”). A chip that can do this will henceforth be known as “Bluetooth Smart Ready”. According to him, „Bluetooth Smart Ready is the superset, and is ready to speak to any Bluetooth product – classic or Smart.“

Suke believes people will actually understand the difference and look for the appropriate moniker when they shop for a new gadget.

I have my doubts, but time will tell.

Bluetooth is facing a transitory period until all the existing devices are finally replaced by new ones that are “Smart Ready” or „Smart”. Mobile phones are typically replaced every one to two years, but laptops and PCs have a much longer half-life, so there will probably be an extended interregnum.

The good news, according to Suke, is that the new dual-mode chipsets will actually be cheaper than the old single-mode ones. That is, until the chipmakers wake up to the fact that their old models will rapidly become unsellable except at cut-rate prices. Expect a price war sometime soon.

On the other hand, if production of “Smart” chips ramps up quickly, we will probably see Bluetooth getting so pervasive that it will actually be an alternative to RFID chips in cases where simply locating a tagged product isn’t enough. Suke told me about a project currently being launched in the U.S.  where individual bags of donated blood can be monitored for things like storage temperature as well as location in order to determine how long it can be used for emergencies. A “dumb” RFID chip can’t just compete with this.

Suke thinks that Bluetooth technology will speed up the development of what he calls the “Connected World”. I still prefer the term “Internet of Things”, but I’m open to debate on the naming thing.

The thing that worries me is that some people may see this as the end of Bluetooth compatibility. In fact, as Suke repeatedly stressed, Bluetooth Smart Ready works with the entire ecosystm of Bluetooth devices including the new ultra-power efficient Smart, as the compatibility map from his presentation shown above demontrates. But if you truly want all those goodies Verion 4 promises, you have to chuck pout your old iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone, Aitbook, Thinkpad or Vaio. That’s a hefty ürice to pay.

I just hope accepting that certain Bluetooth-enabled products won’t work with each others in the future doesn’t turn off too many people. I that case, the result would be a more, not a less Disconnected World.

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Eine Antwort auf Bluetooth and the Great Disconnect

  1. Sony, for example, was doing poorly in the market up until the merged with Ericsson,
    a Swedish company, and now the two are working quite well together

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