The quiet history of better Bluetooth pairing

Designing for fancy new technology can mean we ignore the elegantly practical tech we already have

Amber Case

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“The Incoherence Of Bluetooth Pairing In The Early 20th Century” by Zimpenfish

YYou’re probably familiar with a scenario like this: You get into your car and all you want to do is pair your phone to the car through Bluetooth. But to do so, you must wade through a whole menu of items, put each device in pairing mode, and fail a few times before they finally pair. The same goes for pairing a speaker or other devices.

If you’ve already resigned yourself to this situation as just an inevitable inconvenience of the modern world, let me tell you a story about what might have been — and what could still be.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just tap your phone to a device to pair it? Instead of the multi-step process required for setting up a Bluetooth connection, imagine coming home to do this: Tapping your phone to a dock near the entrance, which instantly pairs it to every device in the house. Your television, smart speaker, baby monitor, and everything else, seamlessly connected to your phone in a single touch.

This is exactly how Bluetooth was supposed to pair to devices. Not only that, but a fully functioning prototype and planned product line of the sort I just described existed as far back as 2008, created at Palm, of all places, by researcher Manu Chatterjee. I didn’t know about it myself until 2014, after getting to meet Manu at an airport during one of his many business trips.

What Manu described to me back then has stuck in my head for the last five years: a far better way for using Bluetooth that no one else in product design even seems to remember.

Prior to 2008, Manu led Palm’s Advanced Technology group with a charge to compete against Apple. The iPhone was still in its infancy, competing against a host of other smartphone companies (including Palm) that were unsuccessfully trying to tout their complex hardware capabilities to everyday consumers.

“Palm pilot sales were sluggish,” Manu explained to me. “And I realized that we needed practical magic. I was interested in elegance.”

He found it at an Apple store in 2007. “What really sold the iPhone,” he explained, “was the image of…

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Amber Case

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC.