Why Bluetooth remains an ‘unusually painful’ technology after two decades

ABI Research estimates that 5 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will ship to consumers this year, with that number expected to increase to 7 billion by 2026. Bluetooth is now in everything from smartphones to refrigerators to lightbulbs, allowing a growing number of products to connect to each other seamlessly — sometimes.

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

“I have a very hateful 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 work, you want to pull your hair out.”

“The promise was to make it as seamless and easy as possible,” he said. “Unfortunately, Bluetooth never quite made it.”

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

The rise of Bluetooth

Bluetooth is said to have borrowed its name from a ninth century Scandinavian king, Harald “Blauzahn” Gormsson, known for his bluish-grey dead tooth and also for the unification of Denmark and Norway in 958 AD. Early programmers adopted “Bluetooth” as the codename for their wireless technology that connects local devices, and eventually got stuck.

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

Bluetooth signals travel over unlicensed radio waves that are accessible to virtually anyone, as opposed to private radio waves controlled by companies like AT&T or Verizon. This may have facilitated its development and wider acceptance, but it came at a price.

Bluetooth must share and compete with a number of other products that use unlicensed frequency bands, such as B. baby monitors, TV remote controls and more. This can cause interference that can affect the effectiveness of your Bluetooth.

Harrison cites other reasons why Bluetooth can be “unusually painful,” including cybersecurity issues that can come with wireless data transfer.

For example, if you put a Bluetooth speaker in your New York apartment building, you don’t want everyone within 50 feet to be able to connect to it. But manufacturers have never committed to a seamless “discovery mode” process, Harrison said.

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

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

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

But businesses and consumers continue to embrace Bluetooth. Apple, perhaps most prominently, has ditched traditional headphone jacks and introduced its popular Bluetooth-enabled wireless earbuds, AirPods. Other technology companies have since launched similar products.

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

Despite its shortcomings, Harrison doesn’t see the demand for Bluetooth easing, and admits he uses it seamlessly himself – 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.”