The Futurist: Why Isn't Bluetooth Standard On MP3 Players?

Over the course of a couple of years, Bluetooth on cell phones went from a foreign fantasy to a crippled luxury to a standard (if still often crippled) feature on virtually every new cell phone. Putting aside the fashion merits of wearing a headset in public (an accessory that seems to be favored by an odd combination of middle manager-type office workers and guys’ whose raison d’etre is to go to as many nightclubs over the course of a night as they can), a cell phone without Bluetooth would be a joke today–if you could even find one.

So why then has Bluetooth not yet become a standard feature on MP3 players? When you think about it, the fact that virtually no MP3 players come with Bluetooth is absolutely mind-boggling. In fact, on virtually every single measure of usefullness, Bluetooth would be more useful in an MP3 player than a cell phone.

A day in the life of a cell phone is pretty boring. It sits in a pocket or plugged into a wall all day, waiting patiently for you to pull it out. On a good day, it’s maybe gets 45 minutes of action. Sure you could keep a Bluetooth headset on all day, but unless you’re driving or typing, there isn’t too much use, when you really think about it.

A well-loved MP3 player, on the other hand, could be in use for 12 or more hours on any given day. You could keep it on your desk at work, strapped to your arm when you work out, and docked by your bed when you retire for the night. The simple fact that an MP3 player is likely in use for so many hours is reason enough to pack it with this useful feature.

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MP3 players (with the exception of gadgets like the Samsung K5, which uses boss slide-out speakers) REQUIRE an external audio output in order to function. You have to plug in headphones or a speaker system for them to do anything. And, over the course of a day, a single iPod could find it’s way plugged into several such devices. Bluetooth would allow for easy synchronization with a host of external audio sources–whether they are of the headphone or speaker variety. Plus, it would negate the need for third-party iPod accessory manufacturers to cough up royalties to include Apple’s proprietary dock hook-up.

Cell phones, on the other hand, don’t require anything. You can simply hold them up to your head and talk. Unless you think your RAZR is going to give you a tumor, the use of an external speaker or earpiece–whether via Bluetooth or plug–is merely optional.

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With cell phones, you likely won’t use Bluetooth to transfer anything beyond a small data or music file or some grainy cameraphone shots. With an MP3 player, you frequently have to update gigabytes of music, movies, and photos. I don’t know about you, but if my MP3 player could wirelessly update itself, I wouldn’t have the same stale tracks in my ears for months at a time.

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So here’s the prediction: I guarantee you we will see more MP3 players from major manufacturers that boast built-in Bluetooth this holiday season. Right now, if you want to use a pair of Bluetooth headphones with your iPod, you have to plug in an unsightly dongle. Before long, you’ll be able to coast from Bluetooth speaker to Bluetooth headphones and back again with ease, and makers of third-party Bluetooth dongles will be the only ones groaning.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.