Bluetooth is more of a software standard than a hardware one

by: | Apr 5, 2022

Bluetooth® is one of those technologies that, when it works as it should, you don’t even think about it. You just get the benefit of doing amazing things, like controlling connected products in your home or listening to your favorite music on a wireless speaker — using an app on your phone as a monitor and remote control.

When you stop to think about how all this magic works, your thoughts probably go first to the hardware: How your phone connects to a speaker. Or how the fitness tracker on your wrist sends your BPM to your bike. And you might think about how Bluetooth chips in the different devices communicate with each other.

What many people overlook is that the underlying technology that powers these wireless experiences is software — usually a combination of firmware and apps. In fact, I’d argue that Bluetooth is more a software standard than a hardware one.

That’s why ArcTouch is a member of the Bluetooth SIG, the governing body that defines “the technology building blocks that developers use to create interoperable devices.”

Ultimately, if you want to build a lovable connected product, you better have some talented software engineers that are well-versed in Bluetooth specifications. Here are five reasons why you need Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE software expertise on your product team:

Hardware and software are the yin and yang of digital experiences

The Internet of Things (IoT) is pretty smart – but it’s not the hardware that makes it intelligent. As we wrote several years ago, the interaction of things — and how software powers connected products — defines today’s digital lifestyle.

Put another way, hardware and software are the yin and yang of our digital experiences. They have been since the dawn of the computer age. You can’t have one without the other. A computer is just a plastic, metal, and glass with silicon guts until you add software. Phones and the many connected products that fill our homes and offices don’t do anything without — you guessed it — software. Apps and firmware bring all our devices to life.

And similarly, software powers Bluetooth. Without software, you’d just have a bunch of silicon.

Bluetooth specifications are driven by firmware and APIs

The reason Bluetooth is a “standard” is that the specifications are defined, updated, and shared with the broader community. Those specifications, managed by the Bluetooth SIG, are largely software-oriented. Members of the organization suggest, build and review all new Bluetooth projects and provide approvals.

So, let’s say you’re building a new Bluetooth-enabled hardware device. For it to deliver on its promise, you need to allow other people to connect to it. So you build your firmware conforming to a public specification, in the form of profiles and services that allow friendly devices to connect to your device (e.g., a REST API used between an app and server). The Bluetooth SIG will review your firmware implementation and confirm that it does conform to the associated specification — and does not conflict with or infringe upon any other existing specification.

Any connecting device typically has its own application that allows it to pair with your device. And it needs to have (software) intelligence to know which data to retrieve and how to interpret that data. Meanwhile, a front-end user interface gives people some meaningful reason to make that connection. Software.

Software overcomes Bluetooth hardware limitations

When two hardware devices are connected via Bluetooth, their primary mission is to pass data back and forth. But software applications interpret that data. And software also establishes rules in the event that the wireless connection is interrupted.

For example, if you have a heart rate monitor, and you leave your phone in another room, what happens to the data that the monitor device is collecting?

The device typically has rules, via firmware, for how much data it can collect and store. When the two devices are paired, the application on the phone interprets that data — taking raw information and making it valuable and useful.

When a disconnected device reconnects, the software app on the phone collects backlogged data — and then determines how to present the older missed data vs. new data. The application also determines how to communicate error states — including the notification when the two devices are no longer paired. Or, if the monitor can only store one day’s worth of data, the phone app may warn the user when it’s approaching a full day of being disconnected — and that there’s a risk of losing data.

These hardware limitations are transparent to the user when thoughtfully designed and architected software overcome them.

Software extends the Bluetooth specification

Bluetooth is such a powerful standard because it is so widely accepted. However, it’s not a static standard. It evolves as the technology landscape around it changes — and as new uses extend beyond its current definition.

If you’re building the first-of-its-kind Bluetooth application, there’s no existing specification to adhere to. You’ll be the one defining the standard with the firmware profiles and services — and, potentially, an application for a companion device. This was the case with our 3M Filtrete project. The 3M project had two primary components — an HVAC air filter with a built-in Bluetooth LE sensor, and a companion 3M Filtrete app, designed and developed by ArcTouch.

No one had ever created a smart air filter before — especially one that used Bluetooth. So, there was no “standard” for this. ArcTouch worked closely with 3M engineers on the filter sensor’s firmware and profile so that the data exchange between the mobile app and the sensor was seamless.

The software — the firmware and mobile app we developed — essentially extended the Bluetooth standard, beyond its previous definition. The Bluetooth SIG then reviewed and approved our use of the technology.

User experience design supersedes Bluetooth

Last, I’ll cover a topic that should come first when you think about any future connected Bluetooth product and application: user experience design.

The key to creating any lovable app, Bluetooth or not, is solving a problem and delivering an experience that’s valuable. This, for any project we are involved in, is why we do what we do. And understanding the experience we want to deliver drives all of our technology choices.

Using Bluetooth, and making sure a solution complies with the Bluetooth standard and specification, is just one of many technology choices designers and developers might make to build a digital product. These technology components, including Bluetooth, are enablers for user experience.

However, it’s the software that ultimately defines the experience. With the Filtrete smart air filter, consumers never look at or touch the Bluetooth sensor built into the filter. They engage with the app on their phone to learn when it’s time to replace the filter. They use the app to order new filters. And they use the app to monitor the indoor air quality in their home. Software provides the whole product experience for the customer, and helps 3M forge meaningful connections with their customers and the Filtrete brand of products.

Software — firmware that handles the collection of data combined with apps that provide the user interface — delivers the experience. And software-powered lovable experiences ultimately help Bluetooth live up to its promise.

Working on a Bluetooth product or application?

ArcTouch, a member of the Bluetooth SIG, helps companies develop IoT apps for connected devices and smart products. If you need some guidance or help on a Bluetooth-connected product, we’re happy to offer a free consultation.