Why Bluetooth is still an ‘unusually painful’ technology after two decades

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ABI Research estimates that 5 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will ship to consumers this year, and that figure is expected to reach 7 billion by 2026. Bluetooth is now present in everything from smartphones to refrigerators to light bulbs, enabling a growing number of products to connect to each other seamlessly – sometimes.

Despite its ubiquity, the technology is still prone to headache-inducing issues, whether it’s struggling to set up a new device to connect with, switching headphones between devices, or simply being too far to connect.

“I have a very love-hate relationship with Bluetooth,” said Chris Harrison, 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 transparent and easy as possible,” he said. “Bluetooth never got there, unfortunately.”

The reasons for this go back to the very foundation of relatively inexpensive technology.

The rise of Bluetooth

Bluetooth is said to take its name from a 9th century Scandinavian king, Harald “Blue tooth” Gormsson, who was known for his bluish gray dead tooth and also for uniting Denmark and Norway in 958 AD. Early programmers adopted “Bluetooth” as the code name for their wireless technology that connects local devices, and it eventually stuck.

The technology differentiates itself from Wi-Fi by being “inherently short-range,” Harrison said. It’s still the case today that the Bluetooth options that many consumers are used to in their phones and portable speakers operate at low power and can only connect over limited distances.

Bluetooth signals travel on unlicensed airwaves, which are effectively open to the public and usable by anyone, 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.

Bluetooth must share and compete with a multitude of other products using unlicensed spectrum bands, such as baby monitors, TV remotes, etc. This can generate interference which can disrupt the effectiveness of your Bluetooth.

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

If you’re installing a Bluetooth speaker in your apartment building in New York, for example, you wouldn’t want anyone within 50 feet to be able to connect to it. But manufacturers have never opted for a seamless “discovery mode” process, Harrison said.

“Sometimes the device automatically boots up and is in ‘I’m ready to pair’ mode,” he added. “Sometimes you have to click on some kind of alien sequence to put the device into that particular mode.”

More than that, several US government agencies have informed consumers that using Bluetooth risks making 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 senior government official is said to be skeptical of Bluetooth: Vice President Kamala Harris. In Harris’ much-watched video 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 considered Bluetooth headphones to be a security risk.”

But businesses and consumers continue to embrace Bluetooth. Perhaps most importantly, Apple ditched traditional headphone ports and introduced its popular Bluetooth-enabled wireless headphones, the AirPods. Other tech companies have since rolled out similar products.

Some diehard audiophiles, the kind of people “who complain 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 demand for Bluetooth diminishing and admits he uses it himself seamlessly – about “70% of the time”.

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

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