Bluetooth LE + Android and why the smart tag revolutions is upon us

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On Monday Texas Instruments introduced a new Android 4.3 app that enables anyone to create Bluetooth LE-powered sensor applications. Last week a startup called Tile raised $2.6 million to help people use Bluetooth low energy and the Tile app to find their stuff when it’s lost. Services like Tile, Davies, Fla.-based StickNFind or Proximo are popping up like daisies and the overwhelmed consumers might be wondering why.

The answer can be found back in May, when Google said it would support Bluetooth LE natively in the 4.3 version Jelly Bean of its mobile operating system. To do this, Google had to essentially rebuild its Bluetooth software stack, but it was rapidly becoming untenable to put it off any longer as more and more Bluetooth LE gadgets hit the market.

This upgrade suddenly opened up a world of opportunity for developers building apps for connected devices using Bluetooth LE — which has become an essential protocol for the internet of things. Apple, which has been supporting Bluetooth LE natively since the iPhone 4S finally will have some real competition from Android when it comes to the internet of things. And perhaps Android users will get first dibs on some cool new apps and services.

This is great news for those of us who are toting Android devices, although we still have to wait for handsets supporting Jelly Bean 4.3 to hit the market. Right now the new Nexus 7 tablet and select Nexus hardware are the only devices out there officially supporting it, but a tablet isn’t the ideal format for those trying to manage connected door locks. Thankfully, more devices are expected to hit the market in the fall. Android-toting internet of things junkies may be wise to rush their upgrade.

What’s most compelling about these new crop of sensor tags whether they are raw silicon or integrated into a product like Tile or StickNFind is how malleable the technology can be. It can go far beyond finding lost keys. In a podcast coming out tomorrow I discuss how people could use Tile’s app and sensor to create a peer-to-peer network that could mimic the functionality of GPS.

Meanwhile, in an article on StickNFind, Mari Silbey writes of other applications made possible when Bluetooth sensors are everywhere — from geolocation capabilities to enabling context clues to an app. From her story:

The commercial potential is huge, both for the company’s existing tracking application, and for its forthcoming task-launcher feature. The launcher will automate smartphone functions based on proximity to a Bluetooth sticker. Location plus automation means smarter homes, cars, factories and more.

One developer has suggested creating an application that sends out an automatic check-in email when a user gets home. Another wants to prevent texting while driving by setting a lock on smartphone keyboards that activates when a user gets into a car with a Bluetooth sticker in it.

Such interactions occurring behind the scenes will help us take connectivity beyond remote access and control of devices into something closer to the predictive and automated internet we’re hoping to build. And unlike older-generation technologies such as RFID (too proprietary) or NFC (not build into handsets), Bluetooth is ubiquitous enough that some of the sensor-powered dreams of the future could become reality soon.

Updated at 11:30 am to correct Texas Instruments’ new offering.

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