Bluetooth: What does it really do and will it be replaced?

29th Jan 2014 | 14:00

Bluetooth: What does it really do and will it be replaced?

A look at the ins and outs of Bluetooth and what its future holds

Bluetooth is old and it might be on the way out. It's been around since 1994 and these days it seems to be in just about anything that's even looked at a circuit board, but now there are new kids on the block.

NFC, Wi-Fi Direct and more are encroaching on Bluetooth's turf, which got us wondering, is Bluetooth here to stay or are its days numbered?

Before we can answer that though it's important to understand exactly what Bluetooth does.

What does Bluetooth really do?

In the words of Suke Jawanda, Chief Marketing Officer of Bluetooth SIG, "Bluetooth is a wireless communication technology that allows people to conveniently connect their devices with other devices" and "the role of the technology is evolving to not only allow devices to talk with one another, but actually allow the seamless communication between devices, local applications and the cloud."

At its most basic, Bluetooth could be used for transferring files or contact details between two phones for example, or for an ongoing transfer of data, such as in a hands free kit, where the earpiece would use Bluetooth to wirelessly send and receive sound to and from a phone.

Luxa2 Groove wireless speaker

Bluetooth can also be used to wirelessly control devices. For example by using Bluetooth to pair a smartphone to some speakers not only can you send music from the phone to be played out of the speakers, but you can also then use the phone to adjust the volume, pause the music or skip track.

Similarly the wireless controllers used by the PlayStation 4 and some other consoles use Bluetooth to pair with the console and wireless keyboards and mice generally rely on Bluetooth.

Bluetooth

Its ability to pair devices has made Bluetooth a key part of the growing Internet of Things (IoT) - smart, connected devices covering everything from phones and watches to cars, washing machines and lights, which can all communicate with one another, or at least with any other devices that it could conceivably be useful to communicate with.

The Internet of Things is likely to be a big part of Bluetooth's future too, as according to Jawanda "We have an exciting road map. Being the largest wireless technology in the world, we're clear on our responsibility and role as the stewards of the technology ­to be the trusted and low power link of the internet of things. We're just truly at the beginning of fulfilling against this mandate."

Bluetooth's capabilities have also been put to some more inventive uses, such as preventing the theft or loss of an item by pairing it to a mobile phone and then having an alert go off on the phone when the handset and its paired item become separated and the connection is lost. The same concept has also been applied to man overboard alarms on boats.

Developments

Since its creation 20 years ago Bluetooth has seen a number of improvements. Over the years the speed of connection and discovery of Bluetooth devices has been increased, the data transfer rate has got faster and support for low energy use (known as Bluetooth Smart or BLE) has been added.

The latest version of Bluetooth currently available is 4.1, which according to Jawanda "enhanced usability and increased developer flexibility." One of those enhancements took the form of removing the need for a host when transferring information or data.

With earlier versions of Bluetooth everything would need to communicate directly with a host device, but now devices can communicate independently and then feed that data back to the host all at once.

Fitbug Air

For example if you pair both a pedometer and a heart rate monitor to a phone then with Bluetooth 4.0 and below they both have to separately send their data to the handset, but with Bluetooth 4.1 they'd be able to combine their data and send it together, which is a far more efficient way of doing things and makes other devices less dependent on phones.

This upgrade will also likely be of enormous benefit to the Internet of Things, as that has designs on fully connecting houses and even cities. However Bluetooth 4.1 was only released in December 2013, so it's not in widespread use just yet.

The contenders

Bluetooth has had a good run and as it's continually improving it's managed to stay relevant. But it's got some competition now, most notably from NFC and Wi-Fi Direct.

According to Paula Hunter, NFC Forum Executive Director, NFC (or Near Field Communication) is useful for "everything from access control to device pairing to mobile payments to smart posters. It is particularly well-suited to use cases where the user wants to initiate an action quickly and easily over a short range."

It "harmonises today's diverse contactless technologies, enabling solutions in areas such as information collection and exchange, access control, healthcare, loyalty and coupons, transportation, payments, and consumer electronics."

NFC cotactless payment

In a lot of ways then it's like Bluetooth, as it allows two devices to communicate and transfer data. It also consumes less power than standard Bluetooth and according to Hunter it "sets up faster than Bluetooth and is better at point-to-point communications."

However it is much shorter range than Bluetooth, requiring devices to either be touching or within around 4 centimetres of one another, while Bluetooth has a range of up to 100 metres.

It can play a role in longer range communication, for example Google's Android Beam makes use of it, but it simply uses NFC as a quick and easy way to activate Bluetooth and pair two devices, as by touching the two devices together Bluetooth will be enabled and the two devices will automatically be paired. After which Bluetooth handles the heavy lifting.

Samsung's S-Beam uses NFC in a similar way, but it activates Wi-Fi Direct rather than Bluetooth.

Hunter explains that "NFC's bi-directional communication ability is ideal for establishing connections with other technologies with the simplicity of touch. For example, if a user wants to connect a mobile device to a stereo system to play music, he can simply touch the device to the stereo's NFC touchpoint and the devices will negotiate the best wireless technology to use."

NFC

NFC in itself more complements Bluetooth than replaces it. As while there is some shared functionality and even some things that NFC is better at, such as contactless payments, ultimately the incredibly short range of NFC means that it will never be in a position to truly replace Bluetooth.

According to Hunter "the two technologies are complementary. NFC is great at showing intent, pairing devices and completing simple transactions with a touch. Bluetooth LE is great for micro-location, push-marketing and having a persistent connection with smart wearables."

Going direct

Wi-Fi Direct could be a bigger threat to Bluetooth as it doesn't have the same range restrictions as NFC.

According to Tina Hanzlik, Wi-Fi Alliance's Senior Marketing Manager, with Wi-Fi Direct "two or more devices can connect directly by Peer-to-Peer in the absence of a traditional Wi-Fi hotspot or network.

"Wi-Fi Direct-certified devices can also connect directly with nearly all of the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED devices a user already owns, allowing users, their co-workers, friends and family to connect anywhere, anytime."

As Wi-Fi Direct can be used to connect devices and transfer data between them it can carry out many of the same functions as Bluetooth, and in some ways it's even better as it can transfer data at much higher speeds than Bluetooth.

That's a big advantage as while Bluetooth tops out at around 24 Mbps, Wi-Fi Direct is more than ten times faster, with speeds of up to around 250 Mbps.

Wi-Fi Direct

It's versatile too. Hanzlik states that "Wi-Fi Direct devices can perform any function or application that you do today over standard Wi-Fi connections. Devices can connect for file sharing and syncing, sending messages, printing, gaming, displaying video, or playing audio."

So could Wi-Fi Direct replace Bluetooth? Perhaps. Bluetooth still has the low energy market cornered as the power consumption of Wi-Fi Direct is much higher than BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). Meaning fitness devices such as heart rate monitors and other small, low power devices will continue to favour Bluetooth.

But for many other things and particularly for anything that involves large amounts of data being transferred, Wi-Fi Direct could become a more desirable option as it can transfer data at much higher speeds.

Take off

It's taking off fast too, according to Hanzlik "to date over 4200 products have been certified for Wi-Fi Direct. From smartphones to printers, Blu-ray players to fitness devices, all types of products are implementing Wi-Fi Direct to allow users to seamlessly connect devices wherever and whenever they wish."

There are other threats on the horizon too. For example a research team at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University has created a chipset called 'VIRTUS', which they claim can wirelessly transfer data at 2 gigabits per second.

VIRTUS chipset

That equates to 80 MP3 songs every second, making it around 1,000 times faster than Bluetooth. Whether the chipset will ever make it into consumer products remains to be seen, but if it does it could be a real threat to Bluetooth, though like Wi-Fi Direct it lacks Bluetooth's low energy support.

Hazy future

Bluetooth isn't going away any time soon. In fact the recent update to version 4.1 has prepared it for a whole new generation of smart devices and could lead to it becoming a vital piece of infrastructure for the Internet of Things, but it's not the only wireless technology around.

Any technology which can both provide higher data transfer speeds than Bluetooth and use as little power as Bluetooth low energy could render Bluetooth obsolete.

It's still going strong after 20 years and right now there's nothing that quite ticks all the boxes Bluetooth does.

Jawanda is certainly optimistic about its prospects, arguing that if anything, Bluetooth is actually replacing other wireless technologies, saying that "given the advent of Bluetooth Smart – it's performance, low cost, simplicity and ubiquity – it's become the preferred wireless technology for OEMs to replace niche or proprietary technologies that prevented them from hitting scale and working with the phones/tablets/PCs their customers already owned."

"If you want to connect your device to a few things, you can use Bluetooth or other proprietary or niche technologies to do so. If you want to connect to a few billion devices your customer probably already has in the palm of their hand, then Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart is the technology.

The fact is, Bluetooth Smart is the fastest adopted wireless technology in the history of wireless and the native OS support and massive and growing network effect is what's behind this." But with the likes of Wi-Fi Direct encroaching on it Bluetooth may still need to be wary.

On the other hand, there's little reason for any other wireless technology to try and overthrow Bluetooth, when it could just as well be complementing it.

Hunter explains that "it is best to think of wireless technologies as tools in a solution developer's toolbox. Everyone benefits when developers have a rich and robust set of tools to choose from. The application or use case dictates which tool or combination of tools to use.

"No one tool is inherently better than or can replace another, any more than the hex screw is better than or will replace the Phillips screw. Developers will choose to use NFC, Bluetooth, a combination, or a completely different wireless technology depending on the requirements of the application and the desired user experience."

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