A few months ago, I happened to purchase a bag with a device in it that allowed me to “connect” to the bag using an app on my phone. I was super excited until I realized that the connectivity offered me nothing but a behind-the-scenes look at the designer. It felt like such a waste, especially since I would pay extra for a bag that would, say, notify me if I walked too far away from it or that had integrated location tracking.
Many consumers would love to have similar functionality built into their keys, sunglasses, and umbrellas. And it’s not just consumers. Location-tracking is a big business in enterprise and industrial IoT. In my interviews with executives across industries ranging from manufacturing to health care, asset tracking is usually the No. 2 or No. 3 use case for IoT. And it’s about to explode, thanks to new partnerships and a boost to Bluetooth.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how Bluetooth Low Energy was getting ready for the enterprise and my colleague Kevin Tofel wrote about an improvement in the radio standard that makes it better for location tracking. Now we’re starting to see how those Bluetooth updates are changing use cases.
Last week, Nordic Semiconductor said it had signed a partnership with location-tracking device maker Tile that will result in both new Tile tracking devices and — more importantly — an SDK that puts Tile’s software on Nordic’s Bluetooth chips. That means any device using a Nordic Bluetooth chip could become part of the Tile network without the product team having to do an individual integration with Tile. Tile has similar deals with other Bluetooth chip makers.
So you may be able to find Bluetooth headphones that contain a Nordic chip using the Tile app, and since those headphone designers didn’t have to do the extra integration work, they might be less expensive than earlier versions that did require integration work. You can already buy fancy headphones with Tile integrated into them, but this partnership will likely bring the functionality down market and make it more readily available.
With Bluetooth-based location finding, the more devices that are part of the network, the faster someone can find their missing device. That is why when Apple said in early June it was building a location-finding feature for MacBooks and iPhones that allowed Find My Phone to work even when the device was offline, I was super excited.
Apple has hundreds of millions of devices in the world, and if its Bluetooth radios can create a peer-to-peer location-tracking network the company could start adding other devices over time. Plus, it looks like Apple has figured out how to do this in a way that protects a user’s privacy. In short, Find My Phone goes from being a feature on Apple products to becoming a de facto network for location tracking that won’t require a pricey cell phone connection.
Not to be outdone, Google looks like it plans to release a Bluetooth tag, as it filed for one with the Federal Communications Commission back in May. Generally, companies file those forms with the FCC a few weeks or months before the item is set for release.
I’ve used many of these tracking devices and even once wandered up and down the streets of my neighborhood asking my neighbors to download the Tile app on their phones so the Tile I attached to my dog would work. Given how many iPhones there are in the world, I wouldn’t have had to do that if Apple offered a similar tracker.
So the ubiquity that comes with a Tile/Nordic Bluetooth chip combo, or even an Apple- or Google-based networks will be essential for consumer location-finding use cases. But the evolution of the Bluetooth standard to provide more refined location data will undoubtedly mean more for enterprise users.
Up until now, Bluetooth location tracking has been pretty rough, revealing only what room or maybe what area of a building something is located. But with the latest version of the standard, one can track the location of an object to within a few inches. That means someone could locate a tool on a construction site or even track where smaller inventory is in a hospital or manufacturing plant.
Which is incredibly important. I know how much I hate losing precious minutes while I hunt down my wallet, but in an enterprise, losing an expensive or necessary tool can mean lost productivity. So in the coming months I expect we’re going to see a lot of new functionality being added to the asset-tracking market in both the consumer and enterprise world, thanks to new partnerships that expand the footprint of peer-to-peer Bluetooth networks and the increasing granularity of Bluetooth location tracking.
And if you can’t wait that long, then feel free to spend $99 for one of the AT&T or Verizon cellular-based location-tracking devices.