Bluetooth LE Audio - Waiting for the Other Phone to Drop
When will we see Bluetooth LE Audio in mobile phones?
That’s a question we get asked regularly at Packetcraft, and it’s a question that’s getting easier to answer. In this article I’ll review the state of the mobile phone ecosystem and offer a look at what’s to come.
In the world of high tech, empires are built on ecosystems. When a new platform or technology reaches a critical mass of users, a positive feedback loop forms such that the value of the ecosystem increases, attracting more users, which further increases its value. For Bluetooth technology, the most important ecosystem has been the mobile phone, which acts as the hub connecting to a multitude of Bluetooth accessories. Bluetooth is ubiquitous with every single mobile phone you can buy, with product makers shipping over 1.3 billion headsets, earbuds, and other audio accessories per year, plus another 300 million smart watches, activity monitors, and proximity tags, plus millions of other products that you might not even know use Bluetooth, from electric scooters to intimacy devices. The Bluetooth empire has flourished, becoming the most pervasive wireless connectivity technology of our time.
With the success of Bluetooth so linked to the mobile phone, the connectivity decisions made by Android and iOS have an outsized influence on whether new Bluetooth technologies will be adopted, and when. Today, the new technology on deck for adoption is LE Audio, which revamps standardized Bluetooth audio with higher quality, lower power, and new features like broadcast audio. With the mobile ecosystem picture still unclear, many Bluetooth LE chip makers and their product company customers are watching and waiting, deciding when to make a move into LE Audio.
As someone who’s worked in Bluetooth for more years than I care to admit, I’ve seen this story play out before. Back in 2010, I had started a wireless software company that bet everything on a new technology called Bluetooth Low Energy. In 2010, Bluetooth LE (or BLE, as it is now commonly called) was brand new and its future was uncertain. What will BLE devices connect to? What is the killer app? The architects and proponents of this emerging technology correctly envisioned that mobiles would natively support BLE, and phone apps would communicate with all sorts of BLE accessory devices. But when will this be supported in mobile phones? That was the question that dogged the BLE stakeholders for 2010 and much of 2011. Starting around summer of 2011, we started to see the first Android phones with support for BLE, but implementations were clunky, and nothing had the volume to make a difference in the ecosystem.
The turning point came in October 2011, when Apple introduced native support for BLE in the iPhone 4S, plus iOS APIs for developers to write their own BLE apps. After this first product introduction Apple never looked back-- BLE was not only supported in every iPhone to come, but also quickly spread to Apple’s entire product line. More Android phones also started to appear, along with native BLE support in Android OS.
With the ecosystem picture clear, product companies started jumping in, and more chip companies green-lighted their BLE chip development projects. Innovators started seeing the potential of low-cost ultra-low power connectivity to mobile phones. Companies were founded and new product categories were invented. A budding new technology ecosystem started to flourish.
Fast forward to today, and we are seeing a similar situation with LE Audio. This time, Android has made a significant early investment, and rather than lagging behind it is in the lead. Native LE Audio support has already been released in Android 13, and we are seeing the first phones with LE Audio support, like the Google Pixel 7, Samsung Galaxy S23, Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4. With each passing week more products are being announced, including TVs like the Samsung QLED TV (QN65Q800) and, naturally, a growing variety of TWS earbuds including the OnePlus Buds2Pro, EarFun AirPro3, and Samsung Galaxy Buds2Pro.
This is all a great sign for the ecosystem.
But we are still waiting for the other phone to drop.
Apple is famously secretive about the features of its new products, with an entire subset of the tech press dedicated to rumors and predictions about what Apple will do next. Here’s my prediction— Apple will support LE Audio, and eventually support the technology across its entire product line, just like it did with BLE. I believe this because the use case for broadcast audio is just too compelling, and supporting it in every iPhone, iPad, Mac, and AirPod will delight users. (There are other compelling use cases for Apple, like hearing aids and wireless mics, but getting into those details is perhaps a topic for another article.) That leaves the question of when. Instead of offering up my prediction on that, I’ll ask this question of product makers and chip designers:
What do you have to gain by waiting to make a move into LE Audio?
In the early days of BLE, the chip companies that moved early won market share leads that lasted for years. Product companies that started doing prototypes and proof-of-concepts well before the ecosystem formed beat their competitors to market when the phones arrived. However, unlike the early days of BLE where the market was exploratory, we are talking about an established wireless audio market and an ecosystem that is both migrating (from Bluetooth Classic to LE Audio) and expanding (for new use cases like broadcast). With less time needed to discover the killer apps for LE Audio, change will happen rapidly when critical mass is reached. When the other phone does drop, and it inevitably will, the companies that embraced change will be significantly ahead, while their competitors will scramble to catch up.
Jason Hillyard is the VP of Business Development, Packetcraft where he uses his deep experience in Bluetooth and embedded systems to identify new product and market opportunities. During his 20+ year career in the wireless industry he’s had roles as a software engineer, engineering director, and founded a successful startup where he wrote one of the world’s first Bluetooth LE protocol stacks for embedded systems which resulted in their acquisition by Arm. Jason has worked for large companies such as Arm, Broadcom, and Texas Instruments, as well as multiple wireless startups.