You might think that a 10th century Danish king and your computer have absolutely nothing in common, but you would be wrong. If you have ever used a wireless accessory with your computer, connected your mobile device with your car’s audio system, or basically done just about anything that involves a wireless connection, then you are undoubtedly familiar with Bluetooth technology — and you might not realize that the name of this ubiquitous tool actually comes from centuries ago.
According to Bluetooth, the name comes from the Danish king Harald Blatand, who was responsible for uniting the warring Scandinavian nations of what are now Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. King Harald, it seems, was quite fond of berries (and toothbrushes apparently weren’t readily available) and thus his teeth were perpetually stained blue. When the engineers at Ericsson were trying to name their (what was then) new technology back in the 1990s, they decided on Bluetooth, the nickname of the uniting king, since Bluetooth’s purpose is to unite technologies from various brands and that have different purposes. Even the instantly recognizable logo is a nod to the former ruler, as it is a combination of the Danish runes for the letters H and B.
Clearly, though, our friend Bluetooth the king had little to do with Bluetooth the technology as we know it today. These days, you are hard pressed to find any high-quality electronic device, from phones to keyboards to printers and even household appliances, that doesn’t incorporate Bluetooth in some form. In fact, the technology is proving to be a key aspect of the Internet of Things, as well as part of the wearable tech boom. For most people, Bluetooth is how they connect their smartphone to wireless headphones to listen to music or make calls. But how did it actually come to be?
Bluetooth: The Early Years
In the early to mid-1990s, engineers at Swedish technology firm Ericsson were working on short-range radio connection that would enable new functionalities for mobile phones, allowing them to communicate with each other without having to be connected by cables. By 1995, they had developed multi-communicator (or MC) links, and realized that they could not only link mobile phones, but a number of other devices as well. When each unit in the network (phone, PC, headphones, etc.) is equipped with a Bluetooth chip, which contains a transmitter and receiver that can send and receive signals from other Bluetooth chips, the chips are able to communicate with each other as soon as they establish a link.
In 1998, when it was first unveiled to the public, the technology wasn’t so well-received. Not only did it take longer than expected to prepare it for mass production, the tech world wasn’t impressed by Bluetooth’s speed. In the beginning, engineers touted Bluetooth’s speeds of up to 721 kbps (positively glacial by today’s standards), which was far slower than the expected Wi-Fi speeds. However, Wi-Fi — at the time also a new technology — wasn’t necessarily faster or more reliable than Bluetooth. The fastest Wi-Fi speeds could only be achieved when conditions were ideal, which rarely occurred.
Over the last two decades, Bluetooth has gained a following — and improved its speeds considerably, with transfer rates regularly exceeding 20 Mbps. And there are developments in the works that will allow transfer rates to exceed several hundred Mbps, much faster than even those who were touting Wi-Fi in the 1990s could have expected. Today, there are more than 3,000 companies that have adopted Bluetooth as the wireless standard for their products, and there will undoubtedly be more to come.
The Future of Bluetooth
So what does the future hold for Bluetooth? By all accounts, Bluetooth isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially with the explosive growth of the IoT. Both Mac OS and Windows continue to include native support for Bluetooth and do not have any publicized plans to end that, and there are initiatives to make the data transfer rates even faster and the signals stronger. There are also initiatives underway to improve the quality of audio and video transmissions.
Bluetooth is also likely to become a key part of future marketing plans and advertising. Developers are working on Bluetooth “information points,” which will allow users to get information on demand; this is in contrast to the current standard of “push” alerts in which advertisers send information to users.
More than a thousand years ago, a ruthless Danish king used violent force to bring together warring nations. The world of electronic devices might be a bit less bloody, but we still need a force to bring everything together. Thankfully, Bluetooth is still working hard to do just that.