Why Bluetooth is still “unusually difficult” after 20 years


(CNN Business) — In the two decades since it was first included in products available to the general public, Bluetooth has become so pervasive that an entire generation of consumers may not be able to remember a time without it.

ABI Research esteem that 5 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will be shipped to consumers this year, and that number is expected to rise to 7 billion by 2026. Bluetooth is now in everything from smartphones to refrigerators to light bulbs, allowing an increasing number of ever-increasing number of products connect to each other without problems, sometimes.

Despite its pervasiveness, the technology is still prone to headache-inducing issues, whether it’s difficulty setting up a new device to connect, switching headsets between devices, or simply being too far out of range to connect.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Bluetooth,” said Chris Harrison, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Melon University. “Because when it works, it’s amazing, and when it doesn’t, you want to tear your hair out.”

“The promise was to make it as seamless and easy as possible,” he said. “Bluetooth never got there, unfortunately.”

The reasons for this go back to the very foundation of the relatively low-cost technology.

The rise of Bluetooth

Bluetooth is said to have borrowed its name from a 9th-century Scandinavian king, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, known for his bluish-gray dead tooth and also for uniting Denmark and Norway in 958 AD Early programmers adopted “Bluetooth” as a name in key to its wireless technology that connects local devices, and it was finally kept.

The technology differed from Wi-Fi by being “inherently short-range,” Harrison said. Still today, the Bluetooth options many consumers are used to on their phones and portable speakers run on lower power and can only connect over limited distances.

Bluetooth signals travel over unlicensed airwaves, which are effectively open to the public for anyone to use, as opposed to privatized airwaves that are controlled by companies like AT&T or Verizon. This may have facilitated its development and wider adoption, but it came at a cost.

The Walkman with Bluetooth arrives 1:02

Bluetooth must share and compete with a host of other products that use unlicensed spectrum bands, such as baby monitors, TV remotes, and more. This can cause interference that can disrupt the effectiveness of your Bluetooth.

Harrison cites other reasons why Bluetooth can be “unusually difficult,” including cybersecurity issues that can arise when transmitting data wirelessly.

If you set up a Bluetooth speaker in your New York apartment building, for example, you don’t want anyone within a 50-foot radius to be able to connect to it. But manufacturers never settled for a continuous “discovery mode” process, Harrison said.

“Sometimes the device will boot up automatically and be in this mode, ‘I’m ready to pair,'” he added. “Sometimes you have to click on some kind of alien sequence to get the device into this particular mode.”

More than that, several US government agencies have warned consumers that using Bluetooth risks leaving their devices more vulnerable to cybersecurity risks. The Federal Communications Commission has warned that, as with Wi-Fi connections, “Bluetooth can put your personal data at risk if you’re not careful.”

At least one high-profile government official is said to be a Bluetooth skeptic: Vice President Kamala Harris. In the much-viewed video of Harris congratulating President-elect Joe Biden after the election (“We did it, Joe!”), she can be seen holding a bunch of wired headphones in her hands. According to Politico, Harris “has long felt that Bluetooth headsets are a security risk.”

But businesses and consumers continue to adopt Bluetooth. Apple, perhaps most notably, ditched traditional headphone ports and introduced its popular wireless Bluetooth headphones, AirPods. Since then, other tech companies have launched similar products.

Some die-hard audiophiles, the kind of people “who complain that Spotify isn’t good enough,” as Harrison puts it, also refuse to embrace the world of Bluetooth headphones for sound quality reasons.

Despite its flaws, Harrison doesn’t see the demand for Bluetooth waning and admits that he uses it himself with no problem, about “70% of the time.”

“Bluetooth hasn’t peaked yet,” Harrison said, predicting that the widespread adoption of the Internet of Things, or smart devices, will only add to its growth. “Bluetooth will be the glue that connects all of that.”





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