Bluetooth: What does it really do and will it be replaced?

A look at the ins and outs of Bluetooth and what its future holds

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is old and it might be on the way out. It's been around since 1994 and these days it seems to be in just about anything that's even looked at a circuit board, but now there are new kids on the block.

NFC, Wi-Fi Direct and more are encroaching on Bluetooth's turf, which got us wondering, is Bluetooth here to stay or are its days numbered?

Before we can answer that though it's important to understand exactly what Bluetooth does.

What does Bluetooth really do?

In the words of Suke Jawanda, Chief Marketing Officer of Bluetooth SIG, "Bluetooth is a wireless communication technology that allows people to conveniently connect their devices with other devices" and "the role of the technology is evolving to not only allow devices to talk with one another, but actually allow the seamless communication between devices, local applications and the cloud."

At its most basic, Bluetooth could be used for transferring files or contact details between two phones for example, or for an ongoing transfer of data, such as in a hands free kit, where the earpiece would use Bluetooth to wirelessly send and receive sound to and from a phone.

Luxa2 Groove wireless speaker

Bluetooth can also be used to wirelessly control devices. For example by using Bluetooth to pair a smartphone to some speakers not only can you send music from the phone to be played out of the speakers, but you can also then use the phone to adjust the volume, pause the music or skip track.

Similarly the wireless controllers used by the PlayStation 4 and some other consoles use Bluetooth to pair with the console and wireless keyboards and mice generally rely on Bluetooth.

Bluetooth

Its ability to pair devices has made Bluetooth a key part of the growing Internet of Things (IoT) - smart, connected devices covering everything from phones and watches to cars, washing machines and lights, which can all communicate with one another, or at least with any other devices that it could conceivably be useful to communicate with.

The Internet of Things is likely to be a big part of Bluetooth's future too, as according to Jawanda "We have an exciting road map. Being the largest wireless technology in the world, we're clear on our responsibility and role as the stewards of the technology ­to be the trusted and low power link of the internet of things. We're just truly at the beginning of fulfilling against this mandate."

Bluetooth's capabilities have also been put to some more inventive uses, such as preventing the theft or loss of an item by pairing it to a mobile phone and then having an alert go off on the phone when the handset and its paired item become separated and the connection is lost. The same concept has also been applied to man overboard alarms on boats.

Developments

Since its creation 20 years ago Bluetooth has seen a number of improvements. Over the years the speed of connection and discovery of Bluetooth devices has been increased, the data transfer rate has got faster and support for low energy use (known as Bluetooth Smart or BLE) has been added.

The latest version of Bluetooth currently available is 4.1, which according to Jawanda "enhanced usability and increased developer flexibility." One of those enhancements took the form of removing the need for a host when transferring information or data.

With earlier versions of Bluetooth everything would need to communicate directly with a host device, but now devices can communicate independently and then feed that data back to the host all at once.

Fitbug Air

For example if you pair both a pedometer and a heart rate monitor to a phone then with Bluetooth 4.0 and below they both have to separately send their data to the handset, but with Bluetooth 4.1 they'd be able to combine their data and send it together, which is a far more efficient way of doing things and makes other devices less dependent on phones.