After my recent rant about Bluetooth, it appears as though some help may be on the way. In the latest issue of their excellent Technology Quarterly, the Economist writes (subscription required) that near-field communication technology — think Mobile Speedpass, or the Suica cards used on the subways in Tokyo — are likely to be used as an easier way to pair various devices, which could then communicate at a higher rate.
In other words, hold the two devices within a couple centimeters; let them work out the pairing process; then, they can communicate using a higher power technology with more bandwidth.
In contexts like this, physical gestures can be a vast improvement over typical general purpose screen-and-menus interfaces.
I’ve been using Bluetooth in its various iterations for about four years now, and I’ve become quite frustrated by how unfriendly it is so much of the time. I tend to be an early adopter, and was willing to forgive many of the little bugs and difficulties early on. But after four years, just as many Bluetooth phones and several new versions of the software, I’m disappointed with the lack of progress.
I use bluetooth on a regular basis with four devices:
The keyboard connects to the PowerBook; the headset to both the phone and computer; and the phone and PowerBook are paired to sync contacts and occasionally use as a GPRS modem.
Some things work very well. The keyboard and laptop have been flawless; after some initial hiccups, the phone now syncs reliably with the computer. As a whole, though, the technology is still very rough around the edges, with a few major points of frustration. Specifically:
1. Pairing takes too long.
The Jabra headset connects to the PowerBook (for skype) and to the phone. I use both on a regular basis, and every time I want to point the headset at one or the other, I have to go through the whole pairing process again; not the kind of thing you want to do when you’re trying to answer a phone call.
2. It forces me to be more aware of security than I should have to be.
On a recent trip to Europe, my phone was pinged repeatedly on the subway by people trying to sending me software over bluetooth. I rejected all the messages and nothing happened; but obviously people are taking advantage of the ‘discoverable’ mode to try to hack into bluetooth phones.
3. Some common needs seem to be ignored or underpromoted
Why can’t I cut and paste directions someone emails to me right onto my phone without first saving it to a text file? Why can’t I do a mass download of photos from my phone to my computer without selecting each one on my phone, and selecting ‘send to computer?’ Each of these things takes way more steps than it should. But that’s not even the biggest problem; many people don’t even know that these things are possible.
4. It’s still buggy.
Of the four devices I own with Bluetooth, the PowerBook and the keyboard are the only two that work together consistently and reliably. A good thing, too — the prospect of an unreliable keyboard is just about the last thing I want to think about when using a computer. I consider myself lucky if any of the other pairings work well. My phone and computer often need to be rebooted to talk to each other; the phone will think the headset is attached when it’s really not. All my devices are pretty recent; after over four years and millions of dollars, a protocol at this level has simply got to be more reliable.
It’s a hard problem.
To be fair: I don’t envy the challenges the bluetooth team faced. They had a hard technical problem, an international consortium of hardware manufacturers to please, long manufacturing lead times, etc. Compromises were inevitable, and it’s understandable that it would take a while to shake out.
What I would most like to see most is a physical interface to pair devices. Don’t make me decide of things are discoverable or not discoverable. Don’t make me navigate through 6 layers of menus just to connect two devices together. I want to plug my headset into my phone and wait a second and half for a light to tell me that they’re paired. Once I see the light, I’ll unplug the headset and put it on my ear.
Trying to pair devices wirelessly and securely poses all kinds of thorny usability hurdles. But it’s a problem that really doesn’t need to exist. A physical interface might make the hardware a little more complicated to manufacture. But in my view, the simplicity and improvement in usability would make it well worth the trouble.