In the two decades since it was first included in products available to the public, Bluetooth has become so widespread that an entire generation of consumers may not be able to remember a time without it.
ABI Research estimates that 5 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will be sent to consumers this year, with the number expected to rise to 7 billion by 2026. Bluetooth is now in everything from smartphones to refrigerators to light bulbs, which means an increasing number of products can be connected seamlessly – sometimes.
Despite its prevalence, technology is still prone to headache-causing problems, whether it’s the struggle to set up a new device to connect, switching headphones between devices, or simply being too far out of range to connect.
“I have a very love-hate relationship with Bluetooth,” said Chris Harrison, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Melon University. “Because when it works, it’s amazing, and when it does not, you will tear out your hair.”
“The promise was to make it as seamless and simple as possible,” he said. “Bluetooth never quite got there, unfortunately.”
The reasons for this go back to the very basis of the relatively inexpensive technology.
Bluetooth is said to borrow its name from one ninth century Scandinavian king, Harald “Blue tooth” Gormsson, who was known for his blue-gray dead tooth and also for uniting Denmark and Norway in 958 AD. Early programmers used “Bluetooth” as a code name for their wireless technology that connects to local devices, and it eventually became fixed.
The technology was differentiated from Wi-Fi by being “inherently short range,” Harrison said. It is still the case today that the Bluetooth options many consumers are used to in their phones and portable speakers work with lower amperage and can only be connected at limited distances.
Bluetooth signals go over unlicensed radio waves, which in practice are open to the public for all to use, as opposed to privatized radio waves controlled by companies such as AT&T or Verizon. This may have facilitated development and wider use, but it cost.
Bluetooth must share and compete with a variety of other products that use unlicensed spectrum bands, such as baby monitors, TV remotes, and more. This can generate interference that could interfere with Bluetooth efficiency.
Harrison cites other reasons why Bluetooth can be “unusually painful”, including cybersecurity issues that can occur when data is transmitted wirelessly.
If you set up a Bluetooth speaker in the New York apartment building, for example, you do not want anyone within a 50-foot radius to be able to connect to it. But manufacturers never embarked on a seamless “discovery mode” process, Harrison said.
“Sometimes the device will start up automatically and be in this ‘I’m ready to pair’ mode,” he added. “Sometimes you have to click on some kind of alien sequence to get the device into this special mode.”
More than that, several US government agencies have informed consumers that the use of Bluetooth risks making their devices more vulnerable to cybersecurity risk. The Federal Communications Commission has warned that, as with Wi-Fi connections, “Bluetooth can put your personal data at risk if you are not careful.”
At least one high-profile government official is said to be a Bluetooth skeptic: Vice President Kamala Harris. In the much-anticipated video of Harris, Elected President Joe Biden congratulates him on his election (“We did it, Joe!”), She can be seen holding a lump of headphones with cord in her hands. According to Politico, Harris has “long felt that Bluetooth headphones are a security risk.”
But businesses and consumers continue to embrace Bluetooth. Apple, perhaps most prominently, dropped traditional headphone ports and introduced its popular Bluetooth-enabled wireless earbuds, AirPods. Other technology companies have since launched similar products.
Some diehard audiophiles, the kind of people “who complain that Spotify is not high quality enough,” as Harrison puts it, also refuse to embrace the world of Bluetooth headphones for sound quality reasons.
Despite the flaws, Harrison does not see the demand for Bluetooth declining and admits that he himself uses it seamlessly – about “70% of the time.”
“Bluetooth has not seen it top yet,” Harrison said, predicting the widespread use of the Internet of Things, or smart devices, that working closely together will only contribute to growth. “Bluetooth will be the glue that connects everything.”