Will Wi-Fi Direct finally kill Bluetooth?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 16 2009 11:23 AM

Let's Kill Bluetooth

Will a new Wi-Fi technology allow us to connect our devices more easily?

Bluetooth headset.

Why do my iPhone's earbuds still have wires? Here's a device that can stream YouTube clips of hits from the 1980s while I'm out in the middle of nowhere, completely untethered, yet the most convenient way to get "Take on Me" from the phone to my ears is the same technology that folks were using back when A-Ha topped the charts. And while we're on the subject of unnecessary physical constraints, here's something else I can't stand: iPod docks. Sure, I'd love to listen to my music from a nice set of speakers or through my car's stereo, but why do I have to connect the device—why can't the player just know the speakers are there? Indeed, why do I ever have to connect anything to anything else these days—shouldn't I be able to sync and stream from my gadgets without any wires at all?

I know I sound like Andy Rooney. And I know what the tech savvy among you will say: Bluetooth! The iPhone—like many phones, laptops, music players, and other gadgets—includes this radio technology that, in theory, allows you to connect a range of electronics without cables. But while Bluetooth is ubiquitous, it's also pretty useless. It was developed in the late 1990s and arrived on a cloud of great expectations—Bluetooth would eliminate the nest of cables behind our desktops, it would convert our cell phones into universal remote controls that managed all the electronics in the house, and it would let data flow freely between all kinds of unalike devices.

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A decade later, the dream is only partially fulfilled. True, we've got some nice Bluetooth mice and keyboards, and, of course, there are those aesthetically unrepentant among us who dare to leave the house with Bluetooth earpieces appended to their heads. But for wider uses, Bluetooth suffers two critical flaws—it's not user-friendly, and with its slow transfer rate and a range of just a few hundred feet, it isn't powerful enough to replace most of the cables we use today, especially in that den of wires, the modern home-theater setup. We need something better: a wireless standard that is flexible enough to carry audio, video, and all other data in real time, but that is also extremely simple to use.

The obvious candidate for such a standard is Wi-Fi. We know Wi-Fi as the ether through which the Internet flows in our homes and offices; it's fast, and powerful enough to handle multiple connections and large volumes of data. This week, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the trade group that manages the wireless spec, announced the creation of Wi-Fi Direct. Devices bearing this flavor of Wi-Fi will be able to connect to one another without the need for a wireless router. Say you want to hook your digital camera to your laptop while you're traveling, or perhaps you want to pass MP3s between two phones—this new Wi-Fi could be your ticket. (It won't let you get rid of the router entirely, though; you'll still need the router to share an Internet connection.)

Wi-Fi ninjas might protest that connecting two devices directly is already possible using "ad hoc" mode on today's wireless devices—though that highlights the problem with wireless connections today. If you really try, you can find ways to pair many things over the air, but doing so is usually a pain. Wi-Fi's ad hoc mode must be activated through a deeply buried setting somewhere on your wireless preferences menu; most people would never notice it and would never even care to look after enduring the confusion of setting up a Wi-Fi router. Similar complications hamper Bluetooth. Every device seems to have different instructions for connecting it to other devices; in order to hook up a cell phone to a headset, you'll probably have to read the manuals for both devices. Then you've got to go through a series of shamanistic rituals—set your phone to "discover" mode, hold down a button on your headset for longer than three seconds but fewer than five, listen for a set of rising tones, enter a PIN (a moment of panic: A PIN? No one said there'd be a PIN!) ... and after all that, if you're lucky you'll get the thing to work one time. Try anything more difficult—turn on your headset while you're in the middle of a call, say—and you're asking for trouble.

Given all this, it's no wonder that wired earbuds still predominate or that we still have to prop our music players in docks to get them to stream tunes through speakers. The Wi-Fi Alliance hasn't specified how its new wireless standard will work, but let's hope they spend a lot of time coming up with an easier way to connect two gadgets for the first time. For one thing, the process should be consistent across devices—you should be able to connect your HP printer to your Windows laptop in more or less the same way that you'll hook up your Brother printer to your iPhone. It should also require no more than two clicks—one for each device you're connecting. I'd suggest taking a page from the Sonos wireless music system, which is a collection of home-audio components that mesh together in a single seamless network. When you add a new speaker or receiver to the system, you just click "add" on your computer, then hit a button on the new component—and just like that, it's connected. Finally, once first connected, two devices that have been paired together should always recognize each other—you switch your camera on near your laptop and the computer should ask you if you'd like to download your pictures (or just do it without asking).

To be sure, we're moving toward an entirely wireless future. Electronics manufacturers are already prepping for the next great unplugging—a way to send high-definition video over the air (a holy grail that would free you from all the cables running between your Xbox, DVD player, cable box, and television) and devices with wireless power plugs have begun to move out of the realm of sci-fi. But Bluetooth's history proves that cutting the cord is not enough. For people to actually warm up to wirelessness, these toys have to be easy to use, too.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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