When it comes to ubiquitous technologies, few can beat Bluetooth. The wireless protocol has sunk its teeth into practically every modern consumer gadget there is. You name it, it’s in there—from phones and fitness tech to TVs, connected home appliances, cars, and so much more.
But Bluetooth has bigger plans. In a few short months, it will upend the status quo by doing something it’s never done before: bypassing the smartphone, its constant companion, and going online directly.
And when that happens, it could change the way tech makers approach numerous categories, from wearables and health devices to smart homes.
Bluetooth’s Plan To Nix The Pairing Blues
Typically, it works like this: You pair an accessory to a main computing device—say, a smartphone, tablet or laptop—and the primary unit receives data from the smart home sensor, smartwatch, fitness band, weight scale, heart rate monitor, or other gadget. From there, an app decides if the device merely acts as a receptacle for the information, or sends it to an online account.
All that’s set to change soon, thanks to Bluetooth Version 4.1, the latest version going by the “Bluetooth Smart” moniker.
Launched last year, that version got a lot of press for its Bluetooth Low Energy profile, says Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. It made sense at the time. Old versions of Bluetooth had a bad reputation for fussy, glitch-prone pairing protocols and battery drain. But BLE enabled peer-to-peer wireless connectivity without a major hit on battery life.
I caught up with Jawanda at the Bluetooth World developer conference in San Jose, Calif., and he emphasized to me that there was more to Version 4.1 than just a low energy profile. “The coolest thing is, it allows for IPV6 connectivity down to wearables” and other Bluetooth devices, he told me.
IPV6, or Internet Protocol Version 6, essentially allows technologies to identify and locate computers on networks, as well as route Internet traffic. This means many Bluetooth Smart devices, accessories and sensors could identify themselves and communicate over the Internet—to any Web services developers want. And they can do that directly, without having to rely on a smartphone as an intermediary.
“These,” he said, pointing my smartwatch, “talk to the phone, and that app talks to the cloud. That works well right now. But what if I don’t want to speak to the device right now, but to the cloud directly?” Jawanda brings up another example—the glucose monitor used by diabetics. “My mother pricks her finger, then she has to sync it to her phone,” he said. But if the glucose data goes right to the cloud, then it’s immediately available to her doctor who can watch for signs of trouble.
The implications of this approach for health, as well as other things like fitness tech and home automation—anything that relies on remote monitoring and management—could be profound. If Bluetooth’s IPV6 support works the way Jawanda describes, it could effectively make numerous complicated, esoteric technologies extremely simple to use for everyday consumers.
Of course, online syncing is possible via smartphones. But in his Bluetooth World presentation, Thomas Embla Bonnerud of Nordic Semiconductor called out a few particular benefits with this direct-to-Internet approach: “You pair once, and you’re done with it,” he said. “You’re not pairing with a specific gadget, but to the cloud—which can push out to all your other gadgets.” Since it’s on the Internet, you can see it wherever you are on any device. It would also bypass issues with complex app settings or software updates.
Another issue with traditional syncing: If the phone is not with you, it can’t act as the go-between. Things could potentially become even more problematic if it’s lost or stolen.
Ultimately, it’s about making things simpler for people. And if everything goes smoothly, it would be seamless and transparent. A bit of tech cliché, perhaps, but Jawanda said it would “just work.”
“What could happen is, I buy this [accessory] from Amazon and, well, I may not even have to do anything,” he said. “At the point of purchase, it’s associated with my account. It has a unique ID, and it could be paired to my cloud service.”
Of course, there are some cases in which local Bluetooth pairing to mobiles is still useful, Jawanda added. (Think Bluetooth earbuds and speakers, or data that you need to locally in your phone.) But even then, “cloud-first” Bluetooth connectivity would complement it. The potential ease of use would be too great to ignore.
And that’s the key. Right now, it’s still all about potential, because no Bluetooth products actually work this way yet. It will be up to developers and tech makers to implement this, and they could do so in a variety of ways. Jawanda offered one possible scenario, in which Bluetooth gadgets connect directly with multi-standard routers to get online. Routers with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular support may not be commonplace now, but Jawanda, Bonnerud and other Bluetooth advocates believe they might become widespread before too long.
Last year, Bluetooth SIG provided “the core, or ‘plumbing,’ in the 4.1 specification,” Jawanda said. Now work is underway on a profile that supports the spec, so Bluetooth Smart sensors and accessories can take advantage of it. At this point, we’re looking at about three months until that’s ready.
“We provided the ‘plumbing’ in 4.1,” he said. “And now you’ll see products incorporating that hit the streets.”
Feature image by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite.