Bluetooth for all...if only

12 January 2009

A cheery missive arrived today via video-release distribution site The Newsmarket on how Bluetooth "allows users to stretch their tech dollars since they can connect and communicate with a wide range of devices and build upon gadgets they already own".

It's kind of true, but glosses over the vital detail that unless you bought the Swiss Army knife of gadgets, you have to have a blue belt in tech-fu to work out which gadgets will play nice with which Bluetooth peripherals. Not long after the Bluetooth protocol first appeared, manufacturers started talking about profiles. Profiles to print using Bluetooth. Profiles for headsets and hands-free operation. But few are mandatory which means it's up to the manufacturer to support any of them. Market pressure means most support the common ones, but it's easy to be caught out.

For example, you would expect the iPhone, which has Bluetooth, to talk to a Bluetooth headset, wouldn't you? Not any Bluetooth headset. The mono ones used just for calls do work, but stereo headsets – for listening to the music stored on the device – that use A2DP will only work with a hack. As of now, you have to buy an adapter that plugs into the audio socket to get A2DP to work as planned. For example, the Zikmu wireless speakers featured by the Bluetooth SIG in the release use a dock to get the iPhone to send any audio to them. But, as well as the highs and the low-end of the frequency range, they also put the bell-end into speakers.

There is talk of an updated A2DP which uses better compression – Belfast-based APT sells software that allows more audio to be sent for the same number of bits and would like to get that into A2DP. Some consumer manufacturers already use Apt-X as an option and sell on the higher audio quality - Sennheiser is among them. So, it's not hard to imagine Apple doing something similar. But it means that right now, you do have to dig into the alphabet soup around Bluetooth.

With the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) trying to push its technology as a universal protocol, that's likely to lead to problems and inevitable returns as people find out that their Bluetooth pulsemeter does not, in fact, talk to their phone or PDA. Any protocol that demands you have an innate understanding of obscure four-letter acronyms to get things to talk to each other is not really satisfying the job of consumer technology.

And then, even if the devices do work together, you are not guaranteed a smooth ride when it comes to pairing them. The situation is so bad that chipmaker NXP Semiconductors reckons it has a business in selling interfaces that use the Near-Field Communications (NFC) system, as used by contactless smartcards, to get Bluetooth devices to talk to each other.

4 Comments

Hey Chris – in the effort of full on transparency, I represent the Bluetooth SIG. Definitely concur that consumer education has a way to go – and full implementation of all profiles in devices that *should* have them is something we hope for. In the meantime, the SIG has developed ‘Experience Icons’ that manufacturers can include on packaging in order to ease consumer confusion. I just got back from CES, and saw these are definitely catching on (Samsung, Motorola, Plantronics, Logitech and other big players were using them to highlight exactly how the Bluetooth implemented in their devices worked). More information can be found on the Experience Icons at http://bluetooth.com/Bluetooth/Experience/Experience+Icons/.

I still think it is crazy the iPhone doesn’t support A2DP, but as I stated above, I am a bit biased.
-Blair

Blair,

The icons are a start. The trouble is nothing short of putting the acronyms on the box may do. I can see people looking at the headset icon and not distinguishing between mono and stereo, and the differences in profiles that entails.

Maybe what you need are Bluetooth terminals in shops that tell you which peripherals will work with your device - pair with the reader, scan the profiles and then show a list.

Would be interesting to see Blair's take on the Apple move toward using Bluetooth more - some A2DP support coming (not before time...) it seems

in addition to SENNHEISER, CREATIVE, Jaybird, and CHORD are ramping production of apt-X enabled Bluetooth A2DP audio gear... more CE brands TBA shortly.