Finally: A truly magical iPad

Apple's newest iPad can do amazing tricks, thanks to new wireless technology. (And I'm not talking about LTE)

Everybody's excited about the new Apple iPad's high-resolution screen. But ultimately, the Retina display is just a pretty face. It can't do anything that the screens on previous models couldn't do.

In fact, just about all of the features that are considered "new" in the new iPad are really just bigger helpings of the old capabilities: More pixels on the screen. More graphics performance. More megapixels in the camera. More megabits per second with the mobile broadband connection. There's more of everything. But what's fundamentally different?

One of the least appreciated new features is one that truly brings entirely new capabilities to the iPad. That feature is Bluetooth 4.0 support.

One common complaint about Apple's mobile devices by fans of alternatives, such as those based on Google's Android operating system, is that Apple is slow to include new technologies. And it's true. In fact, Apple's industrial design chief, Jonathan Ive, told a British newspaper this week that Apple's competitors don't succeed like Apple does because they're too "interested in doing something different, or want to appear new." Those are the wrong goals, he said.

In other words, new technology isn't a goal at Apple. Yet the new iPad is the first tablet that supports Bluetooth 4.0. Similarly, the iPhone 4S was the first major smartphone to support Bluetooth 4.0.

Why is Apple so much more aggressive than other companies with this particular technology?

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that's been around for years. Most people associate it with loudmouths at Starbucks who use Bluetooth headsets to have personal conversations for all to hear.

But the new Bluetooth can do so much more than connect a clunky earpiece. Bluetooth 4.0 isn't just a little better than the version currently built into most mobile devices. It's massively better.

Bluetooth 4.0 has an extremely low-energy feature, which means supporting gadgets can run off wristwatch batteries, or hold charges for years, rather than weeks. For example, Bluetooth 4.0 enables wireless headsets that last weeks between charges. And it means that headsets can be a fraction of the size.

Wireless iPad keyboards don't have to be charged at all for the life of the iPad, thanks to Bluetooth 4.0.

Another magic trick Bluetooth 4.0 performs is that it allows pairing and data exchange without user involvement. If the user has granted permission in advance, two Bluetooth 4.0 devices can connect and sync data without even informing the user, just by being in range.

Bluetooth 4.0 also, ironically, even simplifies the connection of Wi-Fi devices. Right now, adding a Wi-Fi gadget often requires users to hand-enter configuration information. To oversimplify, Bluetooth 4.0 enables new Wi-Fi devices to get configuration information automatically; instead of asking the user, Bluetooth 4.0 enables devices to communicate configuration information with each other. The only user involvement required is permission.

What devices?

What devices will the iPad connect to via Bluetooth 4.0? Well, just about everything Apple makes, for starters. Apple's iPhone 4S supports it. So will the company's full line of Macs, from the MacBook Air to the iMac.

I also believe all future versions of Apple TV, as well as the rumored Apple TV set, will support Bluetooth 4.0. Most Apple pundits, including me, believe Apple will use Siri (when it's ready) to control TV.

I believe Apple's TV-controlling "breakthrough," suggested by the late Apple founder Steve Jobs in his recent biography, involves Siri voice commands, but via any Apple device. I predict that Apple TVs will come with a remote that has a microphone. You'll tell Siri what you want to watch or record, and Siri will do your bidding. But this same functionality will almost certainly exist in iPhones and iPads. Just tell your iDevice what you want to watch, and Siri will make it happen.

However: How does the mobile device "wake up" the Apple TV? How does the TV "wake up" your mobile device with new information, such as the fact that another program you wanted to watch is about to begin? Bluetooth 4.0 would enable that capability beautifully.

Beyond Apple products, Bluetooth 4.0 facilitates a world of third-party accessories and apps that will be totally unlike anything we've seen before. "Quantified self" gadgets that actually work. Keyboards that never need recharging. Home energy appliances that auto-update your iPad constantly, alerting you to waste. The possibilities are endless.

The iPad is a gadget unlike anything that has come before. It's being used in corporate offices, airplanes, schoolrooms, factories, sports fields and all kinds of professional settings. It's even replacing cash registers. The addition of Bluetooth 4.0 technology is one of those upgrades that will spawn a thousand unanticipated new products and services.

Don't get me wrong. I like the screen on my new iPad. But I believe Bluetooth 4.0 support will really set the iPad apart and usher in a new generation of connectivity options that consumers and professionals alike never even imagined.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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