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Bluetooth Gets Simple Set-Up, More Security

A Bluetooth specification enhancement on the verge of ratification will simplify the pairing process and boost security, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) said.

If combined with nearfield communications (NFC) technology, the enhanced Bluetooth spec will take simplicity a step further by allowing for touch-to-pair simplicity, the group said.

The new spec, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, will replace 2.0+EDR and could appear in cellphones, headsets, PDAs, laptops and other devices by Christmas, said Kevin Keating, the SIG’s senior marketing manager. The spec will eliminate the need for consumers to create and remember a four-digit PIN code when they initially pair a Bluetooth-equipped device, and it will reduce the number of menu clicks to three to five from as many as five to 20, he said. It will also make the pairing process easier to remember because the process will be uniform among 2.1 devices, whereas different phones currently use different menus to pair a phone with a headset or other device.

For products such as headsets, wireless keyboards, and wireless mice, the spec will also extend battery life by three to five times, thanks to a smarter sleep mode that no longer checks regularly for a wireless connection even if the device hasn’t been used for awhile.

Bluetooth’s 3Mbps data rate remains unchanged in the new spec.

With 2.1+EDR, pairing between a cellphone and headset will work like this: Users will turn on the cellphone and then turn on the headset, automatically starting the connection process. The phone will ask the user if he wants to pair. If “yes” is selected, an encryption code will be established, and communication can begin. In contrast, current Bluetooth users must navigate a phone’s menu system to find the Bluetooth controls, select “search” to search for devices, then create a user-generated PIN code to permanently pair devices and generate an encryption algorithm.

The pairing process will last only a few seconds, Keating said, except when a 2.1+EDR device, such as a phone, is trying to pair with a legacy Bluetooth device, such as a headset. Then the phone will prompt users to search for a device and enter a PIN code.

Encryption will also be more robust under the new spec because a phone or other device will automatically generate an authentication code said to be stronger than a 16-digit alphanumeric character random PIN code. Current Bluetooth products, in contrast, require users to enter a PIN/encryption code of a minimum of four alphanumeric characters, though users can enter as many as 16 if they want.

To protect confidential information, suppliers are given the option of requiring a 2.1 device to generate a six-character passkey, which the user will then have to manually enter.

“The improved pairing provides a consistent and intuitive pairing solution that includes finding devices, securing the link and authenticating the devices,” the SIG said. “The benefits of this secure, simple pairing include fewer steps for the user, improved security, and connection in a few seconds.”

Said SIG executive director Michael Foley, “We brought together usability, technical, security and marketing experts from our member companies and developed a system where the initial one-time pairing of devices can be done in a matter of seconds with fewer steps. This new version makes pairing Bluetooth devices easy for anyone to do. We also significantly increased security of the pairing process and kept the impact on device and silicon manufacturers to an absolute minimum, to maintain low cost and continue the high degree of innovation for Bluetooth products.”

If you thought 2.1 was simple, pairing will be even simpler when 2.1 is combined with optional NFC technology, Keating said. Then, users won’t have to press any buttons to pair devices. They’ll simply tap two devices together, such as a phone and a digital picture frame or phone and printer. “You can touch, press yes and print a picture,” Keating said.

To demonstrate the potential, the SIG embedded Bluetooth 2.1+EDR with the NFC option in a Parrott digital picture frame and in an NFC-equipped Nokia phone due in Europe in the second quarter. NFC enables the phone to be used as a credit or debit card and “swiped” at the point of sale.

In other developments, the SIG said it continues to work with the WiMedia Alliance to incorporate 6GHz-band ultra-wideband technology into the 3.0 version of the specification, tentatively dubbed High Speed Bluetooth. The 480+Mbps spec is due by the end of the year, about six months behind what the SIG called an aggressive schedule announced last year.

Among other applications, Bluetooth 3.0 will enable wideband connections between digital camcorders and TVs, bulk transfers of MP3 music, and faster transfers between PDAs and PCs. Products would be backward-compatible with 2.4GHz Bluetooth devices.

In 2006, Keating noted, 625 million Bluetooth-equipped devices were shipped worldwide, and is to ship 2 billion in 2010.