Bluetooth headset for the iPhone

I went to an Apple store today, to buy an iPhone Bluetooth headset. I asked the clerk how the iPhone is selling, and he said “Steady, to both business users and consumers.” I came back to my desk to find a press release from iSuppli saying that the iPhone was the best selling smartphone in the US in July, with 1.8% of the overall cell phone market.

The iPhone Bluetooth headset comes in a box about the same size as the iPhone’s box. As usual with Apple, the box and all its contents are seductively designed, a pleasure to unpack and examine. The headset itself is tiny, but it comes with two USB connectors, one a nice docking station for the phone plus the headset, and one a traveling cable for both the phone and the headset.

One benefit of these dual connectors is pairing. To pair the devices simply plug them both in at the same time. That’s all. It worked for me. Another nice touch is the charging progress indicator that appears on the screen of the iPhone. It shows the battery status of both the headset and the phone.

The headset comes pre-charged; it was only plugged in to the dock for a couple of minutes before the light went green. Even plugging it in brought a little lift of the spirit, as I discovered that it uses the same magnetic engagement technology as the MacBook power connector.

What a disappointment when I made a call, though! There was a lot of static and a sound like running water at both ends of the connection. This is par for the course in my experience of Bluetooth headsets (there are half a dozen discards in my desk drawer), but still not acceptable. The headset was about 3 feet from the phone. There are several Wi-Fi transmitters in my office, but Bluetooth is supposed to be immune from this kind of interference due to its adaptive frequency hopping, which is supposed to learn which frequencies are conflicting and avoid them. ** Update: on subsequent calls I didn’t experience the same degree of impairment, so this initial experience may have been anomalous. The call quality on most calls appears to be acceptable. Even better, this is the first in-ear headset I have used that is so comfortable that I forget I am wearing it. This is a breakthrough. But now that it’s in my ear all the time I am beginning to be concerned about battery life. **

About a billion cell phones were sold in 2006, of which about 50% had Bluetooth capability. About 100 million bluetooth headsets were sold in 2006. Although 100 million of anything is a lot, it is only a 10% attach rate for headsets to phones. I believe the attach rate would be higher if the comfort, sound quality and ease of use were improved.

A strange omission in the iPhone Bluetooth headset is the apparent lack of support for playing iPod content through it. While it may make sense to think that music listeners must have stereo, not every MP3 is music. I play a lot of saved NPR clips through my iPhone, and the headset wires are constantly getting tangled up. Balanced against this inconvenience I would be quite satisfied with monaural playback of this content through a Bluetooth headset. It seems high-handed to deny this option to those who might find it useful. Perhaps this design decision has something to do with battery life.

Bluetooth and the Trough of Disillusionment

An earlier post in this blog discussing dual mode phones mentions the trough of disillusionment as a part of the technical product hype cycle. This article from 2002 gives an amusing view of Bluetooth from the bottom of that trough; industry experts warn that it could be 2012 before Bluetooth is pervasive. It turns out that in 2007 Bluetooth will be in almost half the handsets sold. In retrospect it seems so inevitable.

The article covered its bets in the final paragraph, quoting Instat predicting 690 million Bluetooth chipsets to be shipped in 2006. Actually, by the end of 2006 the run rate was 12 million units a week. Considering it was a four year out prediction Instat’s accuracy was remarkably good.