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Bluetooth comes of age

Interview Bluetooth SIG's Steve Hegenderfer on the explosion of the fourth protocol
Tue Nov 12 2013, 13:31

STEVE HEGENDERFER is a Bluetooth evangelist. The new head of Development Programmes for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) joined from Qualcomm in February 2013. Prior to that he'd spent six years at Microsoft, but when you work for the non-profit Bluetooth protocol body, you have to live and breathe it. And that's just how he comes across.

A few years ago, we would have said that Bluetooth was yesterday's news, but with the advent of Bluetooth 4.0, known as Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth Smart, suddenly there has been a huge proliferation of devices - Wii remotes, credit card machines, heart rate monitors - the list is endless. So is it frustrating to still be known for yuppie headsets? Hegenderfer certainly doesn't think so. "Most people, when they think of Bluetooth, they think of wireless headsets, and for us that's great. It makes us kind of like Kleenex - 'Hey! Do you have your Bluetooth on? Where's your Bluetooth?' But what you're really seeing in this renaissance is Bluetooth Smart."

Because Bluetooth has always prized its backwards compatibility, many people won't realise the many advances that the standard has seen since it was created by Ericsson back in 1994. In actual fact, it has changed almost beyond recognition. As Hegenderfer explains, "With 'Classic' Bluetooth, the profile and protocol are coupled together, so the technology and the use case are in one big ball, which for developers kinda sucked, because any changes to the profile - we have to reflash the device."

Fast forward 19 years and Bluetooth 4.0 shows a complete rethink from those early days. Now, the protocol has been uncoupled from the profiles, allowing developers to make their own, and take a device to market far quicker. The other major advance has been a huge decrease in power consumption.

Hegenderfer explained, "To give you an idea, you can get a year out of a coin-cell battery on some of these devices, depending on what you are doing with them - and not only that, the price of a Bluetooth SoC is going down and down."

The difficulty with any third-party protocol is to gain acceptance by OEMs. With such a big change in the Bluetooth system, it could have been difficult to gain acceptance by the device manufacturer community. After all, we live in a world when one of the major players still refuses to use a standard sync/charge coupling.

Hegenderfer sees through this line of questioning very quickly, saying, "They [Apple] were one of the early risk takers with [Bluetooth] Smart, they baked it in on the [iPhone] 4S, and it was then that [the] Android ecosystem started to say 'Holy S***, we'd better fall in line if we can to be able to use all these accessories being designed.'"

The Bluetooth SIG has no products of its own to sell, but rather concentrates on licensing the concept and uptake of Bluetooth. Of course, by the time Hegenderfer came to his post, the battle for hearts and minds was more or less won. He said, "Talking to manufacturers is a big part of my job, but when you can show them you usage analysis, show them the eco system and most importantly, show them that any two of their biggest rivals are already doing it... well, it helps."

What also helps is having a massive headstart with 100% backwards compatibility. In a world where what Hegenderfer calls 'Classic' Bluetooth devices can be picked up for a couple of quid, proliferation can only be a reassuring thing, though until recently they were the only game in town. However, he doesn't see competing protocols such as NFC as a threat. In fact, quite the opposite. "I see WiFi, NFC and Bluetooth as being very complimentary," he said.

"NFC is a great way to tap to pair, but then it gives the heavier work to Bluetooth. And we've never been about streaming large amounts of high def content - we'll give that to WiFi, y'know. We'll butt heads in the odd case, but on the whole, we're pretty much complimentary, apart from the fact that in a lot of areas we'll always be better."

The conversation inevitably turns to that most intangible of commodities, the Internet of Things (IoT). Despite there being no one clear definition for what constitutes the IoT, Hegendefer sees Bluetooth as an integral part of it, saying, "That's the way I see Bluetooth going and the industry is helping us to move in that direction - and with the low power usage, imagine all a whole network of devices all able to talk to each other, and the cloud - we could potentially bring the Internet of Things, or simply Internet, to places where WiFi can't go, places where there's no power."

To take an extreme example, a mine could be equipped with a network of tiny, low power Bluetooth transceivers. As long as one beacon had access to the cloud from the surface, everyone in the mine would have access to data. The internet is going places it has never gone before.

With all that in mind, what has Hegenderfer seen that he ranks as the most unusual use for Bluetooth? He hesitates, but says, "Well, the most unusual, I'm not sure you'd want to write about... um, Bluetooth vibrators. Very interesting implementation of Bluetooth."

While there's no question that vibrators are unusual, perhaps there's something less obvious and equally unique. He adds, "One of the other interesting ones I've seen has to be toothbrushes.

"My kids have smart toothbrushes. We used to have terrible trouble getting them to brush their teeth. Now, I can see where in the mouth they're brushing, and for how long. It all gets sent to my iPad and if I want to I can make that data available to their dentist. Is that a killer app? Perhaps not, but it's interesting."

So what does Hegenderfer see as a 'killer app'? He replies, "When it comes to Bluetooth Smart, I don't know. There's a lot of interesting things, but there's not one single use case. All I know is that we're going to start seeing more and more and more cool uses." µ


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