How Bluetooth 5 could change the IoT

Bluetooth is everywhere. The first question many of us ask friends who’ve just bought a new car is: does it have Bluetooth? Who knows or cares what make or model of car it is when it can pair with your phone, create hands-free calls and even put turn-by-turn navigation instructions from Google Maps through in-car speakers? Everyone loves Bluetooth, and for a generation increasingly brought-up on wireless, there’s more good news this year: the arrival of Bluetooth 5.

Bluetooth 5 – due for release late this year or early next – goes way beyond our early versions of the connected car, promising not just faster speeds, but much greater distances. So far, Bluetooth – a low-power, short-range radio connectivity that became a de facto industry standard in the late 1990s – has been used largely for consumer devices. Named after a Viking king of Denmark in the first millennium who’s remembered for his skill at uniting people (check-out the official logo – it’s actually King Harald Bluetooth’s initials written in runes), Bluetooth first appeared on hands-free headsets. Since then it’s appeared on everything from keyboards, sunglasses, weighing scales and digital picture frames to unexpected products such as Nike trainers, toothbrushes, footballs…

There’s always been a lot of love for Bluetooth. Lately, it’s been used largely for linking phones to wearable devices, portable speakers, TVs, earphones and smart watches. However, the world’s favourite wireless comms tech may have connected us to our gadgets as never before, but so far it’s failed to ignite the so-called smart home. Who lives in a house with a connected thermostat, connected appliances, or connected doors? Very few of us.

Could Bluetooth 5 Spark Big Changes?

Bluetooth 5 could change all of that. Unveiled in June, the fifth-gen specification of Bluetooth quadruples range, doubles speed, and increases data broadcasting capacity by 800%. It’s the latter that’s most important. Although Bluetooth 5 will mark the end of the two-step ‘pairing’ process and see the debut of a new ‘connectionless’ link, its makers think that the new Bluetooth’s ability to transmit better and richer data will make it the industry standard not just for the smart home, but the smart economy. Could Bluetooth 5 help make Internet of Things devices interoperable?

That’s certainly what the Bluetooth-supporting companies – all 30,000 of them – think, and the wider industry does have a need for interoperable standards. An IoT that grows quickly using several incompatible wireless standards would risk a damaging ‘format war’. However, what’s really behind the confidence in Bluetooth are beacons. Over 371 million Bluetooth beacons are projected to ship by 2020, embedded in shopping malls, public buildings, hotels, libraries, museums and airports. Accessing contextual information and navigating even when indoors is soon going to be easy, though the ‘contextual messaging’ that the advertising world is getting excited about doesn’t sound quite so enticing. Who wants vouchers for cheap coffee sent to their phone every time they pass Starbucks?

For factories, warehouses and industrial plants, it’s also a question of speed and distance. Since Bluetooth 5 will exchange data not only four times further, but twice as fast, it should make it a better fit for industry, where monitoring the performance of machinery and process is crucial. That’s the Industrial IoT in a nutshell, though just as important is Bluetooth 5′s less power intensive design; Bluetooth-Based IoT devices that last longer do sound promising, though exactly how much longer is so far unclear.

What is clear is that Bluetooth 5 is an attempt to give IoT projects, in industry especially, the chance to use a trusted wireless technology in large areas and even outdoors. The ‘connectionless’ services offered by Bluetooth 5-equipped beacons might be the most intriguing, but at its heart Bluetooth 5 will be all about sending software updates to IoT devices, and working over larger areas than before. Oh, and yes, you will need a whole new generation of Bluetooth 5-certified devices to take advantage.

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