Despite its prevalence, technology is still prone to headache-inducing issues, whether it’s the struggle to set up a new device to connect, switching headphones between devices, or being out of range for a connection.
“I have a huge love-hate relationship with Bluetooth,” said Chris Harrison, professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Melon University. “Because it’s great when it works, and you want to pull your hair out when it doesn’t.”
“The promise was to make this as smooth and easy as possible,” he said. “Bluetooth never quite got there, unfortunately.”
The reasons for this can be traced back to the fundamentals of relatively low-cost technology.
The rise of Bluetooth
name of Bluetooth ninth century The bluish gray dead tooth, as well as the Scandinavian king Harald “Blue tooth” Gormsson, known for unifying Denmark and Norway in AD 958. The early programmers adopted “Bluetooth” as a codename for their wireless technology that connected local devices, and it eventually crashed.
Harrison said the technology differs from Wi-Fi in that it’s “inherently short-range.” The Bluetooth options that many consumers are accustomed to in their phones and portable speakers are still valid today, as they operate at lower power and can only be connected over limited distances.
Bluetooth signals travel over unlicensed airwaves that are effectively open to everyone, as opposed to specialized airwaves controlled by companies like AT&T or Verizon. This may have facilitated its development and wider adoption, but it came at a price.
Bluetooth must share and compete with a number of other products that use unlicensed spectrum bands, such as baby monitors, TV remotes, and more. This can create interference that can disrupt the effectiveness of your Bluetooth.
Harrison cites other reasons why Bluetooth is “unusually painful”, including cybersecurity issues that can arise when transmitting data wirelessly.
For example, if you install a Bluetooth speaker in your New York apartment, you don’t want just anyone within a 50-foot radius to connect to it. However, Harrison said manufacturers never decided on a seamless “discovery mode” process.
“Sometimes the device will start automatically and be in ‘ready to pair’ mode,” he added. “Sometimes you have to click on some sort of alien sequence to put the device in this particular mode.”
On top of that, multiple US government agencies have advised consumers that using Bluetooth risks leaving their devices more vulnerable to cybersecurity risks. As with Wi-Fi connections, the Federal Communications Commission warned that “Bluetooth can put your personal data at risk if you’re not careful.”
But businesses and consumers continue to embrace Bluetooth. Apple, perhaps most prominently, has abandoned traditional headphone ports and introduced its popular Bluetooth-enabled wireless earbuds, the AirPods. Other tech companies have since launched similar products.
Some hardcore audiophiles who “complain that Spotify isn’t high quality enough,” as Harrison says, also refuse to embrace the Bluetooth headphone world for sound quality reasons.
Despite its shortcomings, Harrison doesn’t see Bluetooth demand declining and admits that he uses it without any problems – “about 70% of the time”.
“Bluetooth hasn’t peaked yet,” Harrison said, estimating that widespread adoption of the Internet of Things, or smart devices, and close-range interoperability will only contribute to its growth. “Bluetooth will be the glue that binds it all together.”
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