Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) has noted its next version of Android, likely Jelly Bean 4.3, will feature Bluetooth low energy wireless network technology, or BLE. The technology has been featured in the Apple iPhone since the release of the iPhone 4S, and it is found in the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4. BLE is also branded as Bluetooth Smart, but what is it, and what can it do?
BLE allows devices to use much less power than standard Bluetooth connections, while offering most of the connectivity of Bluetooth proper, and about one-half of its range (15 meters or 50 feet). Google has said devices running Bluetooth low energy are developed to last “years” without needing a new battery or recharge.
Richard Hyndman, who works with Android developers for Google, explained at the Google I/O conference last month that rather than being fully paired with a device and broadcasting data constantly, BLE works by providing short bursts of data when necessary “and then powering back down again. This is how Bluetooth low energy stays so low energy.” Hyndman added, “It needs a fraction of the size battery and then you get these devices that are a fraction of the cost, and run for a lot longer.”
BLE chip devices are very small -- with one Texas Instruments model measuring 6 by 6 millimeters, according to the electronics distributor Digi-Key Corp. -- and they are able to run in several power states, including ultralow peak, average and idle modes. According to the Bluetooth SIG, which develops and manages the wireless technology, BLE will allow small devices to run for years on a standard, coin-cell battery.
In a smartwatch, such as the Pebble, BLE will allow the device to interact with an Android or iOS device, and display information such as text messages and other data. The Pebble contains the sensor for BLE, but the standard has not yet caught on with developers. When (and if) BLE does catch on in consumer devices, it will allow consumers to do a lot more than use their smartwatches for weeks at a time without charging.
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Imagine your smartwatch or phone automatically unlocking your car as you approach it, or even unlocking your front door before you have a chance to search for your keys. This is possible with BLE. A device with the technology could also attach to your keys, allowing you to find them when they are lost.
BLE could also potentially be used in television remote controls, game controllers and medical devices, such as heart-rate monitors. While Bluetooth itself allows for transfer of high-bitrate data such as with a phone call or music, BLE is more appropriate for a text message or notification. All of the exercise functions found in a device such as the Nike+ FuelBand or the Up by Jawbone are capable of being transmitted wirelessly through BLE.
BLE is available as a stand-alone service (Bluetooth Smart) or in addition to the standard Bluetooth connection (Bluetooth Smart Ready). The dual-mode implementation is how BLE has been implemented so far -- such as in the Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone since the 4S; the HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) HTC One; and the Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (KRX:005935) Galaxy S3 (SIII) and S4. Research In Motion Ltd (NASDAQ:BBRY) has included support on the BlackBerry Q10 and Z10, while Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone users are hoping to see BLE in version 8.1.