February 26, 2024

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Why Bluetooth remains ‘unusually painful’ two decades later

Why Bluetooth remains 'unusually painful' two decades later
ABI Research Estimates 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 available in everything from smartphones to refrigerators to light bulbs, allowing a growing number of products to connect with each other Some smoothly – sometimes.

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

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

“The promise was to make it as smooth and easy as possible,” he said. “Bluetooth just didn’t quite get there, unfortunately.”

The reasons for this are due to the relatively low cost technology basis.

The rise of bluetooth

It is said that Bluetooth borrows its name from A 9th century Norse king, Harald Gormsson “Blue Tooth”, who was known for his bluish dead teeth and also for the unification of Denmark and Norway in AD 958. Early programmers adopted “Bluetooth” as a code name for their wireless technology that connects local devices, but it was eventually discontinued.

Harrison said the technology was different from Wi-Fi because it was “short-range in nature”. It is still the case today that the Bluetooth options many consumers are accustomed to in their phones and portable speakers run at lower power and can only communicate over limited distances.

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

Bluetooth should share and compete with a plethora of other products that use unlicensed spectrum bands, such as baby monitors, TV remote controls, and more. This may cause interference that can disrupt the effectiveness of Bluetooth.

Harrison cites other reasons why Bluetooth is “unusually painful,” 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 wouldn’t want anyone within a 50-foot radius to be able to connect to it. But Harrison said manufacturers have never settled on a smooth “discovery mode” process.

He added, “Sometimes the device will automatically start and be in this mode, ‘I’m ready for pairing mode.’ Sometimes you have to tap some kind of space sequence to get the device into that specific mode.”

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

At least one prominent government official is said to be a skeptic about Bluetooth: Vice President Kamala Harris. In the much-watched video of Harris congratulating President-elect Joe Biden after the election (“We did it, Joe!‘), can be seen holding a set of wired headphones in her hands. According to Politico, Harris “has long felt that bluetooth headphones pose a security risk.”

But companies and consumers continue to embrace Bluetooth technology. Apple may have abandoned the traditional headphone ports and introduced the popular wireless earbuds with Bluetooth technology, the AirPods. Other tech companies have since launched similar products.

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

Despite his flaws, Harrison doesn’t see the demand for Bluetooth fading out and admits he uses it seamlessly — “70% of the time”.

“Bluetooth hasn’t seen its heyday yet,” Harrison said, predicting that widespread adoption of the Internet of Things, or smart devices, and working together at such a close distance will only add to its growth. “Bluetooth is the glue that holds it all together.”