OS X Yosemite: Apple's Bluetooth Handoff trade-off

Bluetooth is extremely important. In its latest iteration it has become the wireless networking glue that holds together entire ecosystems of smart device -- Apple knows this  -- it was the first company to release a mass market Bluetooth 4.0 LE device, the iPhone 4S.


[ABOVE: Image c/o Germany's Apfeimer website, which first made the Bluetooth 4.0 claims]

Transition problems

Handoff/Continuity connectivity on Macs means iOS and OS X devices will recognise each other when they are near to each other. This will enable them to work together to make calls using a Mac, open documents on every device, send and receive SMS messages and more.

Since these improvements were announced at WWDC it has become clear these features may not work on every Mac that supports the new Yosemite OS, as so much of this integration seems to depend on standards baked inside Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which not every Yosemite compatible Mac has installed.

Apple hasn't yet confirmed these claims and it is unlikely it will at this stage of development, but a German Apple website claims those Macs that will support Handoff/Continuity include:

  • MacBook Air (mid-2011 and above)
  • MacBook Pro (mid-2012 and above)
  • Retina MacBook Pro (mid-2012 and above)
  • iMac (late 2012 and above)
  • Mac mini (mid-2011 and above)
  • Mac Pro (2013 and above)
  • The iPad 2 lacks Bluetooth 4.0.

It is likely the need for Bluetooth 4.0 is why iOS 8 only runs on iPhone 4S models or later, as Apple first put a compatible Bluetooth 4.0 module in its mobile devices (with the exception of iPad 2) in that model. It is possible Continuity may also be supported on the most recent third edition Apple TV.

There had been hope users of non-Bluetooth 4.0 LE Macs might be able to use a Bluetooth 4.0 LE dongle to enable Continuity support, but a post on MacRumors claims even with a compatible dongle connected, neither Continuity nor AirDrop function.

The potential

Apple is still developing OS X Yosemite so final features are not declared. It is logical that the company could work with a partner to bring a supporting dongle to those Yosemite Macs that need it -- this is how it managed the transition when it moved to introduce Bluetooth in Macs the first time around, when it recommended the D-Link DWB-120M Bluetooth USB adapter.

Despite the model limitations the focus on Bluetooth LE makes sense. The standard is far more flexible than classic Bluetooth; is custom-made for smart devices, including the iWatch; and is capable of communicating with classic devices, but doing so better with LE systems. Advantages include better security, auto-sensing and more.

The GATT architecture of the standard makes it easy to create new profiles for specific uses. You already find profiles for health, heart rate, immediate alerts and proximity..

"The technology costs less and offers flexible development architecture for creating applications to bring everyday objects like heart-rate monitors, toothbrushes, and shoes into the connected world and have them communicate with applications that reside on the Bluetooth Smart compatible smartphones, tablets, or similar devices those consumers already own," says Bluetooth SIG.

The challenge is that the best features of the technology are not available using older Bluetooth implementations. In other words, what Apple is doing is moving its platforms across to a new technology, and, in common with each major transition in standards, some relatively recent products just won't already have the tech inside.

However, given the attention Apple lavished on Continuity/Handoff, the company will have to figure out a way to make this transition painless for millions of Mac users not yet able to invest in new kit.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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