Bluetooth beefs up for the internet of things

The next version of Bluetooth, the low power wireless protocol used in headsets, smart locks and personal fitness devices is getting a few tweaks to make it easier to use it for connected devices that won’t pair with a smartphone or tablet — otherwise know as the internet of things. The Bluetooth special interest group approved Bluetooth 4.1 yesterday and better data rates, IPv6 support and the ability for devices to act as a server are some of the things you can expect.

The improvements are all software related, so an over the air update can upgrade your radios. Think of this as yet another update to Bluetooth Low Energy in an effort to get it to live up to the SIG’s Bluetooth Smart branding. Let’s dive into the tweaks:

  • The 4.1 version has been tweaked to avoid possible interference with LTE radios which Suke Jawanda, Bluetooth SIG CMO, characterized as something that’s not a problem today, but as more Bluetooth devices are talking to phones or tablets it could have become an issue.
  • A better sleep-wake cycle for the radio that will allow the devices to connect without user intervention. So your scale can automatically snag the number of steps from your fitness tracker when you walk into the bathroom.
  • Bulk data transfer at higher rates (although the rate wasn’t disclosed). Remember that Bluetooth is still a low data-rate protocol, so we’re not talking streaming movies, but it’s handling ever longer streams of small data. Having a bulk transfer function means updating a fitness tracking app might take a couple of seconds instead of 10 or 20.
  • Developers get a few bonuses as well. This version lets Bluetooth devices act as a peripheral device and a hub at the same time. So the tech which was about connecting devices to a smartphone or tablet that had the brains can now also connect to other Bluetooth devices that might have brains. So your smart watch can grab your weight data from the scale and display it for you or it can relay it onto a smartphone, for example.
  • The final tweak is a bit vague, but involves giving Bluetooth devices a way to talk directly to the internet by giving them some kind of dedicated channel, which could be used for IPv6 communications. But because Bluetooth is a low-power protocol, implementing IPv6 could require more battery power than is wise. So how the SIG or chipmakers add IPv6 compatibility to Bluetooth-power devices seems to need a bit more explanation and development from the chipmakers.

As with any tweak to the underlying hardware, device makers will roll out support for Bluetooth 4.1 at their own pace, so keep your eyes open for OS and device upgrades that will support the standard.