Last year was a big one for the Bluetooth protocol. In 2019, more Bluetooth devices went into devices such as toys, trackers, and toothbrushes than went into laptops, computers, and phones. According to data from ABI Research collected on behalf of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), 4.2 billion Bluetooth devices were sold, 52% of which were earbuds, smart speakers, lights, clothing, etc.
In 2020, the SIG expects that the growth of so-called “hearables” and China’s embrace of Bluetooth for the smart home will boost sales of non-computing-related Bluetooth devices to 2.5 billion. Meanwhile, it’s forecasting that total sales of Bluetooth-containing products will reach 4.6 billion.
As someone who has seen Bluetooth go from a niche technology — remember those sales executives talking into Jabra headsets in the early aughts? — to one where I can now easily scroll through two pages’ worth of connectable Bluetooth devices in the settings menu on my phone, I’m impressed with its growth.
I’m even more impressed that, despite the raft of other options in the wireless world, Bluetooth is still being built into new devices and is upgrading features without losing its luster. What we think of as Bluetooth has morphed along with the needs of the electronics market, and it has done so without alienating device makers that chose it two decades ago because it was an excellent way to stream voice calls to phones.
In 2010, the SIG pushed out Bluetooth Low Energy, which helped cement Bluetooth as a personal area network for the up-and-coming internet of things. That meant battery-powered devices could clip onto your socks or your activity tracker to communicate with your phone without requiring much power. It also allowed the creation of beacons, which used Bluetooth signals to broadcast messages to nearby phones.
The update to low energy, the creation of beacons, and the adoption of both by Apple on its phones and tablets pushed Bluetooth into entirely new markets, including fitness and connected locks.
A few years later, with its launch of versions 5.0 and then 5.1, Bluetooth created two new capabilities designed for the internet of things. The first was improved beacons and location-tracking, which it did by allowing more data to be broadcast by beacons and by offering more granular location capabilities, respectively. The second was the ability to create a mesh network using Bluetooth radios, which added resiliency and helped Bluetooth compete with other low-power wireless standards such as Zigbee and Z-Wave.
Which leads us to where we are today. On a call this week, Chuck Sabin, the head of market development with the SIG, explained that mesh networking was driving the sale of Bluetooth devices into smart homes in China thanks to Chinese vendors Xiaomi and Alibaba putting the technology into their smart speakers. Before mesh, I played around with Bluetooth light bulbs, and when I’d try to turn the light off upstairs from my kitchen downstairs would get stymied because I was too far away. But with mesh, my request hops around other Bluetooth radios and makes it upstairs despite the distance.
So far, 90% of Bluetooth mesh devices are lighting-related, according to the SIG.
Lighting is poised to help push Bluetooth mesh into the smart home and also act as a crucial feature in the burgeoning location-tracking market. As more lights and lighting fixtures get Bluetooth radios installed, there’s greater overall coverage. Greater coverage offers greater granularity and faster finding when seeking a “lost” item. So whether it’s a consumer tracker such as Tile, or specialty products designed for pallets in warehouses, Bluetooth’s ubiquity is fueling a virtuous cycle.
Location-tracking technology, which is what companies are using to determine proximity and exposure notifications to track COVID-19, are also on the rise. It’s the fastest-growing use case for Bluetooth right now. Which makes sense, as other location-tracking technology can be power-hungry (GPS, Wi-Fi), only work outdoors (GPS), or is unable to offer precise locations (GPS and Wi-Fi). What will be interesting in the near term is how well Bluetooth competes with new ultra-wideband radios, such as those in the Apple iPhone, which can detect proximity within millimeters.
Still, Bluetooth has clearly won significant ground, and when it comes to the internet of things, is still gaining it. Based on the SIG’s report, 38% of connected IoT devices today have Bluetooth in them, which — judging by the list of products currently trying to connect to my phone — seems about right.