Five things you probably don't know about Bluetooth

Danish runes, tricky terminology, and Polish marketing firms that try to pair you up in malls. Bluetooth is a hoot.

Credit: Photo by IntelFreePress/Flickr

I get excited when I see things like old Wii Fit balance boards turned into new-fangled smart scales, or companies forgoing Apple’s proprietary connection schemes.

Why? Because technologies like Bluetooth are connecting more and more devices to each other, regardless of who made them. Cars can talk to phones, phones can send music to wireless headphones, music speakers can take phone calls, and little tiny bits of hardware mounted to your jeans can tell any device in your house how your fitness plan is going. Bluetooth is in so many devices these days, and when it works, it feels like something you could tell yourself about back in 1993 and just blow your own mind.

But Bluetooth is not perfect, as even its most experienced and enthusiastic fans can tell you. And its a technology that seems to have just crept up on many of us, without ever really getting to know it. So I present here, for your learning pleasure, a few quirks of Bluetooth you may not know.

Note: Yes, a lot of this is drawn from the Wikipedia page for Bluetooth. But that’s what blogging is for: I’ll burn through that page so you can get back to work. Or Netflix. Whatever.

It was named for a Danish king: Harald Bluetooth, to be specific, who united Denmark and Norway (in part by Christianizing them), and who also provided the well-known Bluetooth symbol:

The Bluetooth logo is a bind rune merging the Younger Futhark runes (Hagall) (ᚼ) and (Bjarkan) (ᛒ), Harald's initials.

It was almost named “Flirt”: As Jim Kardach, present during the early-days negotiations for the standard, explained in a very neat essay:

The suggestion I just can't forget was "Flirt" with the catch phrase "getting close, but not touching." The naming process would continue for a long time.

Just like Wi-Fi and cellular, “range” has a lot of variables: You know who would know? A cryptic Polish firm that does “Bluetooth Marketing,” a.k.a “Pushing things to people’s phones in malls.” Here’s what they say about range:

  • The range depends not only on the transmitter, but also on the mobile phone which is receiving files;
  • The range depends on atmospheric, geographic, urban conditions (vendors provide the best achievable range in perfect conditions)
  • The bigger range, the slower transmission speed; Class 1 devices might be boosted to work on a better range (like 200 meters), however you should not believe it is possibile to broadcast files (in a bluetooth marketing sense) to mobile phones over 1000 meters range, as some vendors suggest

Devices that receive Bluetooth data have it tougher than devices that send it. Also, Wikipedia writing is sometimes completely tone-deaf: Bluetooth sending devices, or “Masters,” can communicate with up to seven devices at once. But it’s up to each receiving piece, or “Slave,” to determine how to address the information being sent. And this is how Wikipedia’s collective prose stylists choose to explicate that:

Since it is the master that chooses which slave to address, whereas a slave is (in theory) supposed to listen in each receive slot, being a master is a lighter burden than being a slave. Being a master of seven slaves is possible; being a slave of more than one master is difficult.

(_Note that such terminology is common across other tech specifications, including disk drive setups. Note, also, that it really needs to get replaced soon._)

The next version has some naming issues (surprise!): Bluetooth 4.0 features some low-energy implementations that should make everyone’s phone a bit happier to connect to headphones and watches and the like. But like all giant committees, the Bluetooth group has some trouble narrowing down. There’s Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart, and Bluetooth Smart Ready. As Engadget tries valiantly to explain:

Essentially, Smart Ready refers to any electronics that feature Bluetooth v4.0 with a dual radio, like the iPhone 4S, while the Smart tag covers "devices like heart-rate monitors or pedometers that run on button-cell batteries and were built to collect a specific piece of information." In terms of compatibility, Smart Ready devices can interface with themselves and both of the others, while standard Bluetooth lacks compatibility with Smart, which can only hookup with Smart Ready-enabled gadgets.

What did I miss? What else is fascinating about Bluetooth? I’m listening on my … slave connection in the comments.

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