📲 Bluetooth - the odd Swedish protocol that now exists in billions of gadgets

📲 Bluetooth - the odd Swedish protocol that now exists in billions of gadgets

During the 1990s, Nils Rydbeck at Ericsson began to create a standard for wireless short-distance communication. Little did he know that 30 years later there would be billions and billions of connected things, from toys to toothbrushes.

Magnus Aschan
Magnus Aschan

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2019 was a big year for the Bluetooth protocol. This was the year more Bluetooth devices were installed in gadgets such as toys, trackers and toothbrushes than in laptops and phones. According to data from ABI Research, collected on behalf of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group , or Bluetooth SIG, 4.2 billion Bluetooth devices were sold in 2019, of which 52 percent ended up in headphones, smart speakers, lamps, clothing and other stuff.

By 2020, the SIG believes that the growth of so-called "hearables", smart speakers and headphones, and China's implementation of Bluetooth for smart homes will increase sales of non-computer-related Bluetooth devices to $ 2.5 billion. At the same time, the total sales of products containing Bluetooth are predicted to reach 4.6 billion.

Today, Bluetooth technology is not only found in phones and computers. Lots of gadgets have the technology built-in, even toothbrushes. In the picture we see Oral-B Genius X Electric Toothbrush. Photo: Electric Teeth, Flickr .

Bluetooth is a standard for wireless short-distance communication between, for example, a headset and mobile phone or between a keyboard and computer.

The first version, Bluetooth 1.0, was released in 1999 and 2010 came the first support for a more low-power variant, Bluetooth LE, which quickly became popular. In 2016, Bluetooth 5 was released and now the standard was entirely focused on low power.

Behind the Bluetooth standard were technology giants such as Ericsson, Nokia, IBM, Toshiba and Intel. But the "birth" of Bluetooth actually took place in Lund, Sweden where a project called Penny Link was initiated by Nils Rydbeck at Ericsson Mobile Communications, ECS, during the 1990s.

So where does "Bluetooth" come from? The name comes from the fact that Jim Kardach from Intel, who was part of the working group, had read a history book about Harald Blåtand (Blåtand is the Swedish word for Bluetooth). He thought it was a fitting name to tie together the working group, which consisted of members from companies that all had a blue logo: Intel, IBM, Ericsson and Nokia.

The Viking king Harald Blåtand is known both for uniting Norway and Denmark and for being a great speaker who was good at getting people to agree and talk to each other. The symbol for "bluetooth" also suitably became two stylized runes; ᚼ ("H") and ᛒ ("B").

Today, Bluetooth is often found as one of several network technologies in an integrated circuit. This is Broadcom BCM4339HKUBG. In the same circuit there is wifi IEEE 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1 and FM receivers. This particular circuit is in a Nexus 5 tablet. Photo: Raimond Spekking, Wikimedia Commons.

Not just for headsets

From the start, Bluetooth was a pretty odd niche protocol. You probably remember the salespeople and craftsmen with headsets? Then, in the beginning, it was above all a great way to stream voice calls to phones. Since then a lot has happened and it is thanks to the protocol constantly being adapted to new needs and not favoring any specific manufacturer.

A classic Bluetooth headset from 2004. A favorite of many salespeople and craftsmen. Photo: ed g2s, Wikimedia Commons.

Above all, it was the transition to low power in 2010 that enabled Bluetooth to be installed in more and more devices and laid the foundation for the Internet of Things. Now, Bluetooth could easily be powered by smaller batteries and end up in everything from toys to activity bracelets.

It also made it possible to create "beacons", or tracking devices, that used Bluetooth signals to send messages to nearby phones.

The low-power update, the creation of beacons and the fact that Apple embraced both uses in its phones and tablets opened up Bluetooth for new markets, including training gadgets and connected locks.

A few years later, with the release of version 5.0 and 5.1 of Bluetooth, two additional features designed for the Internet of Things were added. The first was improved beacons and location tracking, which allowed more data to be transmitted by beacons and more granular location features. The second was the ability to create a network using Bluetooth radio, which made it possible to create so-called mesh networks with Bluetooth. This in turn enabled the technology to compete with other wireless standards such as Zigbee and Z-Wave.

Mesh networks take Harald Blåtand into the future

This leads us to where Bluetooth is today where a large part of the sales of Bluetooth devices are now driven by the mesh functionality. In China, for example, Xiaomi and Alibaba have the technology in their smart speakers and when more gadgets are now paired, since the Chinese want to build smart homes, Bluetooth is the first choice. Before the mesh technology arrived, Bluetooth had around 10 meters in range. Now, when more Bluetooth gadgets can communicate with each other and create a common network where a signal can jump between multiple devices, the range can be significantly longer.

In a mesh network, the nodes can send signals via each other over the network. This means that the overall reach of the network can be considerably larger and the network as a whole become more robust than in a point-to-point network. Image: Igbe obinna, 17 node mesh network with a routing path between node A and node Q, Wikimedia Commons.

So far, 90 percent of Bluetooth devices using mesh are lighting related, according to the SIG. So, we're talking about connected light bulbs and lamps. This means that the lamps, perhaps a little surprising, will now become the basis for the next connected network in your home, in addition to wi-fi.

Now that Harald Blåtand's name, over 1000 years after his death, is once again spreading throughout the world, it is via a technology that at that time would clearly be seen as black magic but which today offers tremendous benefit to humanity. And one thing remains the same, it's still a great way to get people, and gadgets, to unite and talk to each other.