There were 7.125 billion people on earth as of 2013, according to the World Bank. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) claims that 8.2 billion devices have shipped that support the Bluetooth standard.
In short, Bluetooth is everywhere. People who have it don’t necessarily use it, but it is there for those who want it. It would be a reasonable assumption that a protocol that already has such wide deployment wouldn’t be capable of further penetration.
Reasonable – but wrong. ABI Research recently released a study suggesting that Bluetooth has some growth ahead. Device shipments carrying Bluetooth will increase by an average of half a billion annually through 2021. The reason for so much growth, according to industry analyst Andrew Zignani, is that Bluetooth is evolving to be a “scalable, low-power wireless networking platform.”
Bluetooth’s Short-Range Strengths
The funny thing is that the world is getting even friendlier to Bluetooth. Its short-range, relatively low-capacity strength fits perfectly into telecom’s evolutionary trend line. During the past decade, the growth of close-range networking and, more recently, the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), played well to Bluetooth’s strengths. Bluetooth is well positioned to provide the granular networking capabilities for which modern services and applications call.
As successful as Bluetooth has been, it needs to evolve. It already has, to some extent. Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE or BLE) was introduced in 2011. Among the goals, as the name implies, was to cut the power demand of Bluetooth, with the aim of setting up for the emergence of personal technology devices that were on the horizon.
Happy Marriage of Bluetooth and IoT
The Bluetooth SIG this year is upping the ante again with the introduction of Bluetooth 5.0, which is expected to be ready by the end of 2016 or in early 2017. It seems as if the Bluetooth SIG recognized that the opportunities surrounding the IoT were even greater than they appeared to be when Bluetooth LE was introduced. It thus came up with updates and upgrades aimed at making Bluetooth the main conduit for certain IoT applications.
The new spec is aimed squarely at the market.
“The Bluetooth specification is improving, driven by market demand, and following the evolution of IoT applications,” wrote Franz Dugand, the sales and marketing manager for CEVA’s the Connectivity Business Unit at CEVA, in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge.
Dugand highlighted the main characteristics of Bluetooth 5.0: It increases throughput to 2 Megabits per second (Mbps), increases range by “at least” a factor of four without increasing power requirements, and offers mesh capabilities, which build resiliency by making possible networks without a single point of failure. Finally, Bluetooth 5.0 offers better beaconing capabilities. This, Dugand wrote, means that more technical information is available about the device using Bluetooth 5 and more location-based services are possible.
Errett Kroeter, the vice president of marketing for the Bluetooth (SIG), provided examples of the benefits offered by the increased range, speed and broadcast capabilities. The greater range, he wrote, will enable Bluetooth 5 to reach outside a home from within. The faster speeds, he said, could be an aid in medical and other critical applications. The increased capabilities will enable easy “connectionless IoT,” he wrote. “Think hassle-free airport navigation experiences, asset tracking of warehouse inventory, improved emergency response, even smart city infrastructure that helps the visually impaired be more mobile.”
Bluetooth 5.0 doesn’t have the short range wireless world to itself, of course. Dugand says that its closest competitor is 802.15.4 and related protocols such as Zigbee and Thread. Clearly, however, they don’t have the footprint of Bluetooth 5.0.
That huge footprint is its greatest selling point, according to Dugand.
“We believe it is ahead thanks to the ubiquity of Bluetooth,” he wrote. “Also, there will be a standardized mesh specification, while alternative solutions in the 802.15.4 markets are unfortunately often proprietary solutions, so with no interoperability across vendors.”
The biggest beneficiary of Bluetooth 5 may be users’ ears, at least according to Ben Arnold, an executive director and industry analyst for The NPD Group.
"The extended range and data transfer speed of Bluetooth 5 will positively impact the audio market in particular,” he said. “Products like wireless speakers and headphones should become more versatile as they can presumably be located farther away from the audio source without sacrificing performance. I would also expect with increased data transfer speeds that latency will be lessened, improving the wireless audio experience."
Bluetooth 5 will revitalize this strangest of protocols, which manages to hide in plain sight.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.