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As Qualcomm buys CSR, Bluetooth is set to invade the smart home

Blueooth, the technology that a trade journalist declared dead in 2003, has managed to ride its unexpected popularity in wireless headsets all the way to a significant seat at the table for the smart home. Both Broadcom and Qualcomm have said they are betting on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as the dominant standards for the internet of things, with Qualcomm announcing Wednesday that it would plunk down $2.5 billion to buy CSR, a Bluetooth radio pioneer.

In part, [company]Qualcomm[/company] is interested in Bluetooth beacons and automotive radio technologies. But there’s significant potential for a broader adoption of Bluetooth in consumer devices — from light bulbs to umbrellas. On Wednesday the Bluetooth Special Interest Group showed off a bunch of upcoming smart home products that will use the wireless standard with light bulbs, home hubs, tracking devices and more.

Avi-on is making a series of Bluetooth devices that lets you manage and control traditional household plugs and indoor and outdoor lighting, all without changing any of your home’s existing wiring. A company called Oort has launched a Bluetooth-based home hub and a variety of products that work with it. Meanwhile, companies like Zuli, which is making connected outlets that are packed with sensors, and the new August lock have also bet on Bluetooth.

The Zuli smart outlet.
The Zuli smart outlet.

The Bluetooth SIG also released data on Wednesday from research firm IHS Technology reporting that the smart home market will grow by 56 percent, compounded annually, in the next three years, with 190 million products shipping by 2018. IHS projects that Bluetooth Smart will be the fastest growing connectivity technology in the segment over that period.

This represents an extensive effort to make Bluetooth, which has long been the preferred personal area network thanks to its ability to transmit small amounts of data over short distances, more appropriate for a whole home play.

Beefing up Bluetooth

There are still plenty of questions about whether Bluetooth is the right technology for the smart home — especially with Thread, a proposed IP-based mesh networking standard, on the horizon, and various innovations in low-power Wi-Fi. Last December, the SIG released an update to the Bluetooth Smart standard, giving it several upgrades to make it more appropriate for home use.

Among those changes were support for IpV6, the ability to incorporate Bluetooth radios into a mesh as opposed to a master-to-slave relationship, and a better sleep-wake cycle for the radio that allows devices to connect without user intervention. These changes were layered on top of the lower-power version of Bluetooth that helped the radio gain so much traction in wearables.

Since the December standards announcement, some of those features have been implemented into products. For example, Zuli created a mesh networking technology that will let Bluetooth devices detect presence. Meanwhile, CSR has built a mesh networking technology that focuses on the radios, creating a resilient layer of connectivity between devices that is more akin to the Z-wave or Zigbee standard.

And since every phone supports Bluetooth, it’s easy to build connected devices that work with the handset, even if the Wi-Fi network is down.

Show me the IP

Sources building Bluetooth products and radios expect that the next upgrade to the standard will include elements of these implementations. However, people aren’t yet building Bluetooth radios that let a device talk directly to the internet. If you are thinking about it as a personal area networking technology, this makes sense. Implementing IPv6 can be power-intensive and one of Bluetooth’s biggest advantage for wearables is its low battery consumption.

But if we’re talking about the home, the lack of direct IP is seen by many manufacturers as a detriment. That’s why the engineers pushing for the Thread protocol laud its support of Low-Power Wireless Personal Area Networks (6LoWPAN), a low-power means of supporting IPv6. We’ll hear more about this in the coming months as we get more technical information on Thread, see the 4.2 version of Bluetooth and learn what Qualcomm does with CSR.

In the meantime, it’s good to see that even after being declared dead, Bluetooth still looks so healthy.