Wearable tech, mobile payments and the Internet of Things: why Bluetooth 4.1 is genuinely exciting (honestly, it is)

New revision to the wireless spec promises to be everything we always wanted it to be
Bluetooth 4.1 logo

Since its inception, Bluetooth was supposed to be the definitive standard for 'personal area networks', connecting a myriad of devices in a cloud of radio activity around your body. Realistically, though, all we ever used it for was headsets and speakerphones. With the latest revision to the spec, Bluetooth 4.1, the technology is finally coming of age. And why not? After all, it's only been around for 20 years.

Image credit: Tsvetomir Tsonev

Twenty years? Really?

Bluetooth dongle

Believe it or not. Bluetooth was first suggested as an idea in 1994, when mobile phones were still the size and weight of house bricks. Given that most of us were still carrying 10p pieces in our pockets to make calls, the idea of a radio-based cable replacement was pretty ahead of its time. It was invented by two researchers at Ericsson, hence the Viking-inspired name which came along three years later. It would be another four years before Bluetooth kit actually went on sale, mind.

Image credit: Shaojeng Ku

And here we are, four revisions later...

Well, several more if you include point releases, but we're not really counting. Over the years, audio quality has got better, security tighter, and the types of devices that can be connected increased. A large number of improvements between version 1 and version 3 focussed on improving transfer speeds and reducing the propensity for interference – something of an historical problem as Bluetooth works in the very crowded 2.4GHz frequency. That's the same piece of the spectrum that's used by WiFi, wireless keyboards and speakers and very talented opera singers, all of which leave even newer Bluetooth devices suffering from dropped connections and limited range. The really big update, however, came in 2010, with version 4.0, aka Bluetooth Smart.

What was in that?

Critically, Bluetooth 4.0 included a spec for Bluetooth low energy (BLE) which – as the name suggests – was designed to massively cut down on the power use of a Bluetooth radio. It introduced idle modes that might as well be completely off, improved device discovery and protocols for interacting with low power devices. It also makes pairing devices a lot easier too. Of course, you don't need Bluetooth Smart to actually be smart. Stuff's Gadget of the Year, the Pebble smartwatch, relies on the decade old Bluetooth 2.0+EDR spec to work its wrist-based wonders.

Bluetooth Low Energy? Isn't that something to do with Apple?

iBeacons Bluetooth 4.1

In a tangential way, yes. Apple's recently launched iBeacons, the tiny sensors which can be used for anything from indoor GPS services to Minority Report style personalised ad broadcasts use BLE. It's not just Apple, though. The high level of AES encryption inherent to BLE and the ubiquity of Bluetooth phones also makes a lot of us think it will become the standard for generic mobile payments too.

And the new release is something to do with that then?

In a roundabout way, yes. The big news from the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is that Bluetooth 4.1 includes support for IPv6, which means it can become the short range network connection for just about anything that uses internet protocol communications. Which, in the age of the Internet of Things, is everything.

Aren't there already wireless standards for that, though?


There are indeed. The ZigBee standard for home automation has been keeping small personal devices talking since 2004, and Z-Wave has been doing the same for light switches for the last three years. Like NFC, though, the two techs have struggled to capture the public imagination much, and are now seriously threatened by a leaner, meaner Bluetooth that is essentially a one-size fits all spec for low energy short range comms which is also compatible with ubiquitous internet protocol tech. That could well mean the war for the airwaves is over.

That's exciting

More immediately impressive, though, is the fact that Bluetooth 4.1 will do a lot more to support multiple devices simultaneously. So it can pair and automatically connect to your watch, heart-rate monitor, speakers, headset et al without breaking its ability to pair with anything else. Hopefully, that means the end of those mystery disconnections and random reliance on phone rebooting just to connect to your speakers. Even better is that Bluetooth 4.1 devices can be 'daisy chained', so devices don't just conform to one role, they can be hubs for connecting other devices too. It's all very meta.

Anything else?

Yes, there really has been a lot of work done on reducing interference. Bluetooth 4.1 radios will automatically co-ordinate with nearby 4G transceivers so that the two stop trying to talk over each other. And then there's better support for bulk data transfers too, so that watches and phones or glasses and phones can swap data collected while they were apart more easily. Told you it was exciting.

Can't wait to get hold of it, but I've only just bought a new phone...

Google Nexus 5

Then you're in luck. According to the Bluetooth SIG, 4.1 can be distributed as an over-the-air update to existing radios – although exactly which ones are unclear yet.

So, where does that leave NFC then?