SHIFT: The trouble with Bluetooth

One of the most annoying things about the upcoming iPhone 3G is that its Bluetooth abilities are remarkably primitive. Like the previous model, Apple gave it only enough Bluetooth to allow it to pair with a wireless earpiece — leaving out the A2DP technology that would let the phone stream music to wireless headphones, or the ability to act as a wireless modem for a computer otherwise stranded from the Net.

Apple is a lot of things, but the company isn't dumb — clearly if there was a big enough demand for advanced wireless abilities, it would have put them in. Bluetooth earpieces have reached the mainstream, barely, but Bluetooth headphones haven't made any noise just yet, even though they've been available for a while. People everywhere say they can't stand wires, yet Bluetooth tech hasn't come anywhere near obsoleting the headphone cable. What's the holdup? My explanation after the Continue jump.

What's With This Code Stuff?
The apparent popularity of Bluetooth earpieces is pretty amazing to me. I don't know anyone who actually uses one regularly, and I suspect a big portion of the 13 million Bluetooth-enabled devices the Bluetooth Special Interest Group claims are shipped each week are either machines that just happen to include Bluetooth (like PCs) or gifts (earpieces are cheap enough now to qualify as a stocking stuffer), many of which get little or no use. One major reason is the setup — that is, there is one. Instead of simply working, as cellphones themselves do, you need to look up codes and punch them in somewhere to pair a phone with a Bluetooth earpiece. To a population that was flummoxed by programming their VCRs, the potential for this being a deal-breaker is very real.

No Wires, No Style
The iPod took headphones from functional tool to technological style statement. When you're picking out a pair, the last thing you want is something that makes you look like a dork. But early adopters of Bluetooth headphones sadly had no choice but to sacrifice cool points in favor of cutting that cable — witness these stunningly inelegant designs. In fairness, the nature of wireless technology necessitates something bulkier than your average earbuds, but if you can't make something people won't be ashamed to wear outside, you may as well forget it.

People Want Magic, Not Wireless
The main thing that's holding back Bluetooth, though, is that it's not magic. Technology writer John Quain recently summed it up when he related a story to me about a woman describing what kind of wireless speaker she wanted: something she could easily hang on a wall and not have to ever plug in — completely oblivious to the basic fact that without wires, a speaker (or pair of headphones) needs power to function. Meaning it needs either a power cable (making it not really wireless at all) or a battery (that requires continual recharging). Bluetooth gear opts for the latter, meaning as soon as you get an earpiece or some headphones, you've got one more thing to charge up, one more thing that takes up a power outlet, and one more thing that could die on you at any time. It's enough to make many people just not bother.

Our Wireless Future
So, short of a Tesla-level breakthrough in the field of wireless energy, is the future doomed to remain a tethered world, with cables everywhere? I don't think so — wireless technologies like Bluetooth hold too much promise, and the general trend is toward more wireless, not less. Engineering will eventually solve the design factor and to some extent the power issue (through improved batteries and better Bluetooth specs that use less energy). The setup will remain the toughest sell, but offering equipment with wireless devices prepared… er, pre-paired might be an acceptable workaround for some gadgets. Or some other, simpler wireless technology might snatch the baton from Bluetooth in the future. Than again, maybe we could all just smarten up and realize that Bluetooth pairing really isn't that hard. Now who's wishing for magic?