Android is just the beginning: How Bluetooth is preparing for the internet of things

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Last night at Google I/O, Bluetooth scored a major victory for connected consumers when Google said it would support the Bluetooth Smart Ready platform natively in Android. This was functionality that iOS devices already have, and it should mean that Android users will get more functional apps to go with their Bluetooth-enabled devices.

As someone who spends a lot of time playing with connected home and personal devices this is fabulous news. I had started gathering research for a post about how as an Android user I feel like many of the popular connected devices are leaving me out in the cold with lame apps, while iOS users get sparkly interfaces and more functionality. The Hue app, the WeMo app, the BlueBulb app and the FitBit are all examples of this iOS first and foremost (and sometimes only) mindset. Or when it comes to specific devices such as the Wahoo Blue heart rate monitor my colleague Kevin Tofel wrote about last year, the Android support only extends to a few devices.

But one reason for the focus on iOS for many devices, especially those containing Bluetooth, is that native support and easy integration between the radio and the app wasn’t there. But with this announcement, which means developers will find it easier to build Android-based apps for connecting to Bluetooth devices, all that changes.

Then app developers building software for Bluetooth enabled gadgets no longer have an excuse. Although, as seems to be the case with Hue and WeMo which both work with Wi-Fi, perhaps they just think iOS users are more likely to buy their gear, so they’ve skimped on Android resources for the time being. Hue lightbulbs are also exclusively sold in Apple stores, which may also contribute to the meh nature of its Android app.

Bluetooth is serious about the internet of things.

While the Android news is great for the growing number of people toting those devices, it’s just one element in The Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s plans to make the radio technology ubiquitous for the internet of things. Bluetooth is already making huge strides in personal area networking compared with other standards I covered as far back as Jan. 2011. Bluetooth radios are set to be in 2.5 billion new devices this year, according to Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, who I met with on Wednesday. That’s one fourth of the 10 billion Bluetooth radios that have shipped in the lifetime of the technology, according to ABI Research provided by the Bluetooth SIG.

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Clearly Bluetooth is popular, and the acceptance by Google of the overarching Smart Ready application development framework will enhance the experience for more consumers, but Powell also detailed plans to create a secure end-to-end network layer for Bluetooth. That technology could ensure that communications between certain devices stay private, an important consideration for medical or personal data.

He also said that in addition to the profiles for data that the SIG had developed for formatting data (for example, it has a running profile that tracks the data associated with steps so an app developer doesn’t have to figure that out), it’s beefing up its service discovery layer. This will become more important as we get more connected devices and want them to talk to each other without human intervention. For example, if you have four connected Bluetooth lightbulbs in a room, you might want to turn them on all at once instead of individually programming them.

This is a concept I explored with Mike Kuniavsky, a principal in the Innovation Services Group at PARC, in a podcast in March. Powell also noted that in addition to the low energy specification the SIG released it’s working on extending the range of Bluetooth in some flavors beyond 100 meters. That means it can be used in the home, and not just as a personal area network, but for devices communicating between rooms. Combine that with the end-to-end security and suddenly my Z-wave door locks look like the wrong choice.

However, I won’t sweat that just yet. Even as Bluetooth beefs up for the internet of things, it won’t become the sole radio technology connecting my gizmos and gadgets to the web any more than Wi-Fi is my sole means of accessing the internet. However, Bluetooth has really grown up and moved well beyond its early days as a connection technology for wireless headsets and computer peripherals. Even if I’m not bullish on the future of the Bluetooth mouse, I’m bullish on Bluetooth.

This story was updated on May 16 to reflect that Bluetooth is extending the service range beyond 100 meters.

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