Bluetooth has been around for almost 2 decades, and if you haven’t heard of Bluetooth then you’ve probably been living under a rock! 🙂
The last major version of Bluetooth (version 4.0) was released back in 2010. There have been major changes in the wireless and electronics industry since then -with the Internet of Things (IoT) being the “next big thing”. Bluetooth 4.0 introduced BLE (Bluetooth low energy) which has been a major player in two areas: the wearable industry and beacons (e.g. iBeacons, Eddystone…etc). It has enabled many other IoT technologies as well including industrial and enterprise applications.
On June, 16th, 2016 the Bluetooth SIG (the body behind the Bluetooth standard) formally announced the next major release: Bluetooth 5. The actual release date is promised for late 2016 to early 2017.
So what does Bluetooth 5 bring us that was missing (or lacking) in the previous versions? Well, there are three main features:
- Increased range: 4x the current max range
- Increased speed: 2x the current max speed
- Increased broadcast messaging capability: 8x the current capacity
Let’s touch briefly on how each of these will play a role in the innovation and usability of devices utilizing Bluetooth, specifically BLE devices.
If you’ve ever used Bluetooth speakers or a wearable device (such as a Fitbit or smartwatch), you’ve probably encountered frustration with the instability of the connection when the distance increases between your smartphone or audio source and the Bluetooth device. This has also limited its usability for home automation devices that are limited with coverage in a typical-size home.
With a 4x increased range the user experience will be greatly improved and new applications will become much more feasible.
Higher speeds will improve two main aspects:
- Improved responsiveness.
- Faster data transfers (especially for larger transfers such as Over-the-air updates).
This feature will mainly improve the usability of beacons and location-aware devices. Currently, the amount of information that can be broadcasted without requiring a connection is very limited (31 bytes). Increasing this amount 8 fold will result in a size of 248 bytes which may initially not sound like much but can actually contain a lot more useful data. This will allow a much richer user experience with beacons and introduce some applications that weren’t possible before.
But what about mesh??!
The one major feature absent from the Press Release by the Bluetooth SIG: Mesh networking! Mesh networking is the ability for end-nodes to relay data to nodes that cannot be reached by others within the network. This is very important for BLE for two main reasons:
- Ability to compete with other wireless technologies that pretty much dominate the home automation arena (such as Thread, ZigBee, Z-wave and other IEEE 802.15.4 technologies).
- Introduce a standard for this technology that any vendor module will support without having to implement from scratch or rely on existing proprietary mesh networking implementations.
I have to wonder why this is a missing part of the announcement?? Is it something that is being worked on and will be announced later to be included in the version 5 release? Has the Bluetooth SIG dropped this from their roadmap? Or maybe they plan to release it as an upcoming update to version 5? Unfortunately, we do not have an answer yet so all we can do is speculate…
Even though the release of mesh networking was not announced in the Press Release by the Bluetooth SIG, it apparently is slated to be released separately from the Bluetooth 5 release. According to this article: “The SIG stresses that Bluetooth Mesh is not dependent on v5.0 – and that it is a separate endeavor, that will be backward compatible with 4.0.”
This is promising to know as the capability of mesh networking will be a big milestone for Bluetooth low energy.
While one of the highly anticipated features (mesh technology) was missing from the new announcement, there’s still much to be excited about in the new upcoming release. I still believe Bluetooth (and specifically BLE) will play a big role in the innovation of new IoT applications.