It took years, but USB eventually replaced the weird proprietary connectors for early cell phones. But many years before USB became the norm, another data transfer technology would unite all electronics – and it did not even use wires.
From infrared to bluetooth
Bluetooth was developed by Ericsson in the 1990s. It is named after the Danish king from the 10th century Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who united Denmark and Norway. The Bluetooth logo combines the runes ᚼ and ᛒ, which are Harald’s initials.
The name (which was actually suggested by an Intel engineer) meant the ambition to become the unifying standard for all kinds of electronics – phones, computers and various accessories.
At the time data cables (serial or USB) were used, for example, to synchronize data between your computer and your PDA, infrared was available as a wireless option. However, this required field of view, which means you had to “align” the two devices with each other during data transfer.
Bluetooth was directional, although it worked at about 10 m (30 feet) maximum, so it did not really have a range. Not even a speed advantage – version 1.0 topped with 721 Kbps.
The Ericsson T39 was the first mobile phone with Bluetooth
It was lots of the original planned use cases, and then the first Bluetooth-enabled phone was unveiled in 2000 – an Ericsson, of course, T36. However, it was not the first Bluetooth phone to actually hit stores (T36 was canceled).
The Ericsson T39 was a pioneer in technology and was launched in 2001. That same year, IBM introduced the ThinkPad A30 laptop with a built-in Bluetooth connection. Now you can sync your phone and computers wirelessly.
The first Bluetooth accessory
The first Bluetooth device ever was a wireless headset unveiled in 1999 that won the “Best of Show Technology Award” on COMDEX. Shortly after the first Bluetooth car kits actually came out in 2001
Ericsson’s first Bluetooth headset (image credit)
They were only mono, but they served an important purpose – countries all over the world were already seeking to ban the use of telephones while driving. For example, the United Kingdom made it illegal on 1 December 2003 with fines of £ 30, but they could increase to £ 1,000.
The first stereo headphones arrived in 2004. Oddly enough, it happened a year after the first Bluetooth-enabled MP3 player came on the market.
Benefone Esc! from 1999 was the first phone with a built-in GPS receiver, but it would be many years before this feature became standard – Bluetooth to the rescue! In 2002, Socket unveiled the first stand-alone GPS receiver that could send positioning data to a mobile device – a Pocket PC, in this case. It cost $ 450, almost as much as the Pocket PC itself.
The first Bluetooth GPS receiver ever for mobile devices
The first Bluetooth mice, keyboards, and printers also came out in the early 2000s. These were more suitable for computers that gained Bluetooth capabilities through add-on cards and (soon) USB dongles.
Bluetooth 2.0 was unveiled in 2005 with “EDR” (Enhanced Data Rate), which tripled the transfer rate to 2.1 Mbps. It was an optional feature and it was still too slow for powerful data transfers. The new standard also increased the range to 30 meters.
But the true boost to performance would come in 2009 with Bluetooth 3.0 and “HS” (High Speed) achieving 24 Mbps. This used a Bluetooth link to shake hands between the two devices rather than handing over the data to 802.11 hardware – so it was actually Wi-Fi that did the heavy lifting.
But with things like Wi-Fi Direct on the horizon and ever-faster mobile network speeds, fast Bluetooth would quickly become irrelevant.
Bluetooth 4.0, also called Bluetooth Low Energy, came in 2010 and was not – was not Bluetooth, we believe. The project started at Nokia under the name Wibree, but it would be incorporated into the next generation of Bluetooth.
Version 4.0 was slower, it topped around 1 Mbps, but it was much more power efficient, making it possible to create battery-powered accessories (think fitness sensors, health equipment, etc.). They could work for years on a single coin-cell battery.
Bluetooth 4.0 also expanded the operating range to 100m (330 ft.) And lowered the typical latency quite a bit. This release also introduced the Multipoint feature, which allows you to connect Bluetooth headphones simultaneously to two devices (such as your phone and laptop).
Next came version 5.0 in 2016. It significantly improved the maximum range and reached 240 meters (800 feet) with line of sight and up to 40 meters (130 feet) indoors. It came at the expense of data speed, but in closer rangers, 5.0 could double the speed of its predecessor (up to 2 Mbps).
Bluetooth has been used in smart home applications since the early days, but it is now even more prevalent. From smart bulbs to smart bathroom scales, its low power requirements, impressive range and the ability to seamlessly connect two gadgets have made it more popular than ever.
Fast growth and what comes next
By 2003, Bluetooth had become very successful with 1 million BT-enabled devices being sent every week. It grew to 3 million a week the following year, then to 5 million in 2005. By 2006, there were already 1 billion Bluetooth devices out there, and about 10 million new ones came to them every week.
There is no sign of Bluetooth 6.0 yet, and there is a new wireless technology that is gaining traction – Ultra Wide Band or UWB. It covers high-speed user cases for data transfer that Bluetooth abandoned many years ago, and has the ability to sense the direction of a connected device (Bluetooth can, by the way, too). For now, at least, Bluetooth and UWB exist peacefully, but it’s not inconceivable that the two could collide down the road.