What Android support for Bluetooth Smart means for developers
It started with the earpieces--those ever-so-slightly pretentious examples of wearable technology lampooned on sitcoms like The Office. Now there could be heart monitors, medical devices, smartphones, tablets and, just maybe, Google Glass. Once Bluetooth Smart is better supported in Android, the scope for what's possible may only be limited by developers' imaginations.
The Fitbit Flex is one of a growing number of Bluetooth Smart-capable devices.
At Google I/O last month there was some surprise that the company didn't provide more details on the next version of Android, code-named Key Lime Pie, to the crowd of developers who descended on San Francisco. There was, however, a separate announcement that provided a substantial sneak peek at what could be included in a possible Android 5.0. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a not-for-profit trade association based in Kirkland, Wash., said it had gotten Google to commit to native support in API 18 for Bluetooth Smart Ready devices, which use version 4.0 of the technology standard, sometimes called Bluetooth Low Energy. The technology reduces power consumption via a low pulsing method but also works with the previous "Bluetooth Classic" versions. These Bluetooth Smart Ready devices, which run on a dual-mode chipset, can include a range of accessories such as the Fitbit Flex or the much-discussed Pebble watch.
Bluetooth SIG's partnership with Google means developers will get an Android API that will allow them to feed data from Bluetooth Smart Ready devices to their apps and back more easily than has ever been possible. For example, Bluetooth sensors might be placed in a soccer ball and a developer could create an Android app that measures the force of a user's kick.
While Apple has been offering support for Bluetooth Smart Ready devices since late 2011, and Microsoft recently did the same with its Windows Phone 8, improving support for Android represents an enormous leap forward, according to Suke Jawanda, chief marketing offer at the Bluetooth SIG.
"Google has an open source ecosystem that Apple inherently doesn't have," he said, adding that while some Android integration with Bluetooth Smart Ready devices had been possible through APIs provided by manufacturers, "that was going down a very fragmented path."
A number of devices already support Bluetooth Smart
In a video recording of the Google I/O session where the announcement was made, Google developer relations manager Richard Hyndman alluded to the difficulties in working with Bluetooth on the platform until now. "I'm sure some of you out there must have suffered at the hands of this technology before," he joked. Other Google speakers at the session later said API 18 will be available "in just a few months," but gave no other firm due date.
The timing of the Bluetooth SIG announcement suggested the organization, like the rest of the Android community, thought Google would release a new version of Android. But Jawanda said he couldn't comment on whether Google delayed the release of the next version.
"When they talked about (native Bluetooth Smart Ready support) at Google I/O, though, there was huge applause," he said. "I think it speaks to how important Google thinks it is to get the word out that they went ahead with this announcement at I/O."
Google's new commitment to Bluetooth in Android could have an enormous impact on mobile apps, said Peter Cooney, an analyst with ABI Research.
"The whole 'Internet of everything market' is set to expand," he pointed out. While most apps today are created mainly for use within the confines of a smartphone or tablet, "now what we're seeing is emergence and growth of sensor devices--things not just like heart rate monitors, but smart doors that can open themselves, smart windows and so on."
Developers won't really capitalize on the Bluetooth Smart opportunity, however, unless more manufacturers open up their devices to support the technology. The first wave of Bluetooth Smart Ready apps, Cooney suggested, will likely come from the manufacturer of a device--a company that makes a Bluetooth Smart Ready pedometer, for instance, might also create an Android app to offer tips to a runner who wants to improve their endurance.
"This move towards interoperable technology is really advancing quickly," Cooney said, noting that the Pebble watch is a good model of how to do this from the start. The makers of the Pebble watch "don't want to get involved in writing all of the applications. They allowed developers to go on and develop on their device. You would imagine it would be the large manufacturers that would find it more difficult to let go, but it will happen."
Another big step will be educating the Android developer community about how Bluetooth Smart Ready will work with API 18. Jawanda said the Bluetooth SIG will be offering more resources at developer.bluetooth.org, but he predicted the ideas will start coming fast and furious.
"Hands-free audio was just the first wave," he said. "There are going to be so many use cases now."