Bluetooth LE: the new king is not like the old king
For the past several years, Bluetooth Low Energy technology has very quietly been gaining momentum. After checking off many of the requirements needed for mass adoption, BLE is looking like the most credible contender for enabling pervasive computing across our entire physical environment. The ramifications are enormous.
Bluetooth? We already know Bluetooth.
You’re right, you do. Bluetooth Classic, that is. Invented by Ericsson in 1994, BC was first popularized by hands-free headsets. Car kits, digital camera, keyboard and mouse integration followed shortly after. Then medical devices, speakers and more started using Bluetooth Classic. Today, Bluetooth adoption is continuing to rise - cumulative Bluetooth products passed 2.5 billion shipments this year.
But BLE attempts to solve a slightly different problem. Where Bluetooth Classic is great for paired devices that stay connected for large periods of time, have relatively high power requirements, and pass larger amounts of data back and forth (high throughput), BLE is much better suited for low power, transient connections. While Bluetooth classic’s pairing process is manual, and requires manual intervention, BLE enables zero-configuration pairing, allowing users to seamlessly interact with BLE sensors wherever they may be.
The unknown heir
Maybe it’s because BLE is often confused with Classic Bluetooth, or maybe it’s because NFC has enjoyed the media limelight, but BLE has largely been ignored by developers, media and industry. It’s been only recently that BLE’s capabilities have started to be put to use.
Specifically, BLE offers:
- Range of 50-100 meters
- Cost effective and long-running battery requirements
- Critical mass of smartphone compatibility
- Transparent device pairing
BLE offers the ability to build a unique class of applications. Applications that can communicate locally with other devices, apps that micro-location, or proximity sensing. Combined with a smartphone, or another more full featured computer, advanced intelligence and networking can be built into the mesh of sensors.
Apple’s quiet march
While others have struggling with NFC, Apple has been patiently marshaling a vast amount of resources into the BLE environment. First, with barely a word, and certainly no marketing campaign like we’ve seen with Siri, included Bluetooth LE as part of the integrated Wifi chipset starting with iPhone 4S and iPad 3. Now, over 2 years later, over 90% of running iOS devices have BLE baked in. The hardware has reached mass deployment and fragmentation issues have ceased.
Next, Apple’s recent acquisitions of Authentic and Passif give them deep expertise and and a wide array of patents in two areas relevant to BLE. The fingerprint scanner by Authentic, while enabling many key benefits, provides the most critical function of authenticating transactions passed over BLE (see this excellent post by Brian Roemmele). Second, Passif, invented a novel form of of energy harvesting, where a BLE sensor is powered not by a battery, but by ambient energy emitted from other wireless signals.
Finally, iOS 7 is coming next week. The new OS looks different - it’s bright, with parallax and animations included. And while the press has focused on the cosmetic changes, Apple’s slight of hand has been masterful.
Instead, pay attention to iBeacons - a simple, painless profile for BLE devices. While relatively simple, enabling ‘only’ micro-range proximity sensing, make no mistake on how powerful this is. With iBeacons, Apple is releasing a standard and a set of API’s - the two critical components on which all new platforms are built. This platform will let people interact and control their environment to an extant never before possible - the ultimate tool and the smartphone will truly become the remote control for your world. Massive change is going to occur, in health care, retail, transportation, payments, shipping, the home and more, we can only hope to do it in a smart and thoughtful manner.
What the smartphone did for mobile computing, sensors will do for ‘pervasive computing’.
Next up: We’ll talk about how BLE compares to other near field protocols, what challenges await those using BLE & iBeacons, how our privacy will be impacted and some of the problems that BLE can solve. Follow along here.