Bluetooth hails from the IEEE 802.15 standard governing personal area networks (PAN). From the early days of the 802.11 standard through today’s .11n technology, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are frequently found together in the same client devices, but have a somewhat cantankerous relationship. Early Bluetooth was sometimes referred to as “rude radio” by Wi-Fi types because the PAN technology had a nasty habit of stepping all over the nearby WLAN environment. But, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth evolved with more sophistication and intelligence, and became a better radio neighbor with each update.
The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) just announced version 4.1, which will radically change what is possible with Bluetooth. But before examining the new capabilities in 4.1, it's worth looking at version 4.0. Dubbed “Bluetooth Smart” and “Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE),” 4.0 is the magic behind iBeacons, which Apple announced earlier this year. With coin-cell batteries that can last up to three years, iBeacon devices communicate with Bluetooth 4.0 user devices (smartphones, mostly) for precise in-store positioning as the first real application of this capability.
While this might seem like just another in a growing lineup of location-based marketing analytics paradigms, the iBeacon is significant. The devices are cheap, self-powered, easily installed and moved, and a direct threat to Wi-Fi systems that are trying to do the same thing (but usually with a much higher price point). That brings us to version 4.1.
With 4.1, the Bluetooth SIG is aiming to become a major player in the much-hyped Internet of Things (IOT) market. While 4.0 steps on Wi-Fi’s turf for location-based interaction with client devices, Bluetooth 4.1 looks to leverage Bluetooth's broad name recognition, widespread acceptance, and new low-power capabilities to compete with technologies that also want in on the IOT. These include ZigBee and Near Field Communication, both which are arguably niche technologies that just aren't familiar to many people.
[Read Lee Badman's analysis of what it will take to reap the benefits of 802.11ac, the next generation of wireless networking in "The 802.11ac Paradox."]
As IoT looms larger for environments of all sizes, Bluetooth 4.1 allows client devices to daisy-chain to each other and multiple devices simultaneously for larger networks that are more Zigbee-like. Perhaps the biggest change for those of us who have to guide our network environments into the future: Bluetooth’s latest version lays the groundwork for dedicated device channels and the use of IPv6 for smart sensors to bridge themselves out of the isolated PAN world and into the IOT. This represents a major and substantial change to the Bluetooth mission, and will absolutely impact the Zigbee market in some substantial way.
Other features with Bluetooth 4.1 make it generally better in its PAN role. Bluetooth has been improved to ensure that nearby LTE radios (frequently under the same device hood) are not interfered with. It has a longer allowable interval between service advertisements, for better battery life and less chatter in the busy 2. GHz band. One of the big gains with 4.1 is the Bulk Transfer feature. For example, the feature would allow my fitness gizmo to auto-transfer all the data it's recorded of my gym activities when I get within range of my cell phone to update the app that tracks my activities.
With Bluetooth 4.1, we’ve come a long way from simply connecting phone audio to Bluetooth headsets. It’s nice to see this old dog learning new tricks, as expanding “everywhere networking” will demand a number of new approaches.