Bluetooth’s Big Mistake

The concept of Bluetooth has a lot of appeal. But its reality? Not so much.

The original concept of Bluetooth, way back in 1994, was simple.  It was to be a simple and low-cost way to connect devices to other devices – a wireless version of a regular wired connection.  Bluetooth would replace RS-232 serial cables, and was limited to a very short range, similar to a typical cable.

The first phone with Bluetooth appeared in late 2000 (the Sony-Ericsson T-36).  Various devices – usually earpieces – quickly started being released, but the plan for Bluetooth to be a low-cost replacement for a piece of wire was massively absent.  A wired generic earplug/headset for a phone would cost as little as $2 – $3 in the early 2000s.  Indeed, a friend of mine had a successful business “selling” phone headsets – he said “we’ll send you a phone headset for free, as long as you reimburse us for the shipping”, and he was able to make good money out of shipping wired headsets to customers for an all-in cost for the headset/earpiece and the shipping of something like $3.

Early Bluetooth headsets tended to cost $150.  A few “brand name” headsets were priced even higher ($199, occasionally even over $200).  The sound quality was usually awful, too.  Connecting the headset to the phone was invariably a hassle.  I bought several, each time hoping the unit would actually fulfill the promises of its advertising, and every time being disappointed.

Since that time, Bluetooth has certainly improved.  It has a longer range, uses less battery power, can connect to many more things, offers improved audio quality, and costs very much less.  Bluetooth phone headsets can now be found for under $20 and are more likely to give acceptable sound quality.

But every Bluetooth device we’ve seen, either old or new, inexpensive or expensive, suffers from the same huge problem.  They “do too much”.

By that we mean the designers invariably get carried away with the potential of Bluetooth not just to share audio to a remote device, but also to control the “master” device from the remote device.  A case could maybe be made for being able to press a button on a Bluetooth headset to answer a call and to hang up at the end of a call, and of course, you want to be able to turn the Bluetooth device on and off.

But the designers try and one-up each other by layering more and more control/command capabilities to the devices they are creating, whether “normal people” would ever use them or not.  That might be acceptable if there was a logical and easy-to-follow set of controls and displays.  But there never is.

There are sometimes a pair of buttons for volume up and volume down, and a third “master control button” that does everything else.  Turn the device on – press the button for a long time.  Turn it off – press the button for a long time.  Answer a call – press the button briefly.  Hang up – press the button briefly.  Call someone back – double tap the button.  Mute the call – do something else.  Transfer a call to or from the phone – something else again.  Answer a call waiting call, add another person to a conference call, pair the Bluetooth device with another device, unpair it, repair it, and so on – different combinations of taps and presses, short and long.

Be careful not to confuse “call reject” with “call accept”, “call mute” with any other command at all, and so on!

Don’t feel bad if you find this all puzzling.  Although none of the mainstream “reviewers” will ever tell you this, the obvious reality is that no normal person will ever remember half of these commands.  Some of us can’t even figure out if the device is switched on or off, and in our attempts to perform this simple act, end up with the device in some sort of mysterious state.

The lack of familiarity with the commands is compounded by the lack of any guidance on the Bluetooth device as to what to do or how to do it.  Maybe there are one or two lights on the device, and maybe they change color, or turn on or off, or flash in some sequence, but who can remember what the different light codes mean?  The classic example of this impossible to understand craziness is Sony’s WH-1000X M3 wireless noise cancelling headphones.  These have two lights and 16 different patterns of flashing and color.  Surely no-one can ever hope to understand what this means.

The big mistake in all of this is that it is utterly and totally unnecessary.  If you are listening to music, for example, and want to pause the track or skip to the next track, there are easy to understand dedicated buttons or controls on the touch-screen of the music playing device.  Which is easier?  Reaching down to the music player and pressing the big button marked “Pause”, or reaching up to your head and trying to work your way by touch to find the buttons and then remember the sequence to press them in?  I invariably end up stopping rather than pausing, or skipping ahead a track, or something else.

If you want to know if your phone is connected to your headset, which is easier – trying to puzzle out if a flashing blue light means the headset is connected, or in pairing mode, or in standby mode, or something else?  Or simply looking at your phone and seeing if there is a connection indicator on your phone’s screen?

Other than turning it on and off, and with the possible exception of answering and ending calls, anything and everything you’d ever want to do with your Bluetooth device can invariably be more readily controlled, via easy and well explained menus, on the master device, rather than on the Bluetooth device.

Rather than going to ridiculous and unnecessary lengths to have our Bluetooth devices control the master devices they are connected to, developers should instead have the master devices they connect to able to control the Bluetooth devices.

Until that happens, and until Bluetooth pairing becomes 100% simple and straightforward, I’ll continue to avoid anything and everything Bluetooth.  As a replacement for a length of wire, Bluetooth has a lot of potential.  But as a new way of controlling the master-devices that Bluetooth devices connect to – that’s something best avoided.

2 thoughts on “Bluetooth’s Big Mistake”

  1. Agreed, dealing with Bluetooth is overwhelming, especially when assisting a dyslectic. Just wondering if you have discovered any that do have just the basics. It would be worth it to even pay more and get less features just to eliminate the frustration. Great site – I’ve only just begun to peruse the many intriguing topics.
    Thank you, –Dan

    1. Hi, Dan

      I had an epiphany and realized that as long as I understood how to turn the things on and off, I could forget about pretty much everything else, because I could indeed control them from the phone. I don’t think there are any Bluetooth headsets that don’t have lots of gratuitous complexity, but the trick is just to ignore it all and focus on simply turning on and off and using the phone for everything else. 🙂

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