Thinking more about Bluetooth 5's inclusion in the next iPhone

September 1, 2016

I'm genuinely perplexed as to why Bluetooth 5's inclusion in the next iPhone isn't being more widely speculated. As far as I can google, Raymond Chuang in BGR's Disqus comments (1 2 3) and I are the only ones discussing this possibility.

I know I'm interpreting tea leaves here, but nothing I've read in the past two months has deflated my theory that Bluetooth 5 will be included in the next iPhone. I struggle to imagine a scenario where all of this smoke leads up to yet-another set of buggy Bluetooth 4 earbuds that get panned by the press. Apple must have a secret, and I think that secret is Bluetooth 5. It's the only way I can see them turning the "why oh why is Apple removing the headphone jack?" conversation on its head.

New developments

A few weeks after I published my theory back in July, the NPD Group announced that June sales of Bluetooth headphones (54%) overtook sales of non-Bluetooth headphones for the first time ever. Interestingly, Beats was also the top-selling Bluetooth headphone brand, beating out LG, Bose, Jaybird, and Skullcandy.

One week later in early August, Forbes reported that Apple had been spending the last few years developing a custom low-power Bluetooth chip with a startup they purchased a year before the Beats acquisition:

The low-power Bluetooth chip comes from technology developed by Passif Semiconductor, a startup Apple purchased in 2013. But the project has hit performance snags. Apple originally planned to launch the Bluetooth gadget in 2015, but Bluetooth performance issues stalled the release, the source told FORBES. “The way it works at Apple is if it doesn’t work 100%, it gets cut,” the source said. Whether Apple’s wireless earbuds arrive with a custom Bluetooth chip by Apple, or instead use a third-party supplier (like Broadcom) is still unknown.

(Side note: Apple and the Bluetooth SIG may have been targeting to release Bluetooth 5 headphones last year with the iPhone 6s to make this year's transition more palatable, but that likely got cut in late 2013 or early 2014 when the 6s' design was finalized. The "performance snag" surely wasn't recent. The casual mention of Apple wanting the headphones to work 100% also makes me think Forbes' source was Apple itself; pre-hyping the quality of their upcoming headphones.)

There's more. Three days ago, Bragi - creator of the oft-mentioned Bragi Dash wireless earbuds that are likely similar to Apple's - teased a 'big' announcement coming on September 5th (Labor Day) in Cupertino. Although the timing and location are curious, John Gruber believes that they "caught wind of Apple's imminent wireless AirPods" and are scrambling to get media attention before the big event, which makes sense.

Finally, earlier today iGeneration (read MacRumors for English) received a supposedly-mistaken email from Beats' PR team announcing that new Beats products would be unveiled at next week's Apple keynote. The screenshot they took of the email was later pulled down.

What I predict will happen

I don't bet (gambling is bad, kids!) but if I did I would bet a good chunk of cash that Apple is going to be the first company in the world to announce and ship a Bluetooth 5 smartphone that was co-developed with all-new Apple and Beats-branded Bluetooth 5 headphones and earbuds.

On stage, they'll show off their new custom-made chip and extol the benefits of Bluetooth 5. They'll claim that their wireless headphones are more reliable, have better battery life, and sound better (with high-fidelity audio) than any other headphones available today. The new devices will still work with your old smartphones and laptops (it's Bluetooth, after all), but the battery life and reliability when paired with the new iPhone will be unparalleled.

Apple and Beats will also announce Hi-Res Audio streaming for Apple Music, allowing owners of the new Apple and Beats-branded headphones to listen to their music at a higher-than-ever fidelity. This will set off yet another discussion within geek circles about whether or not the difference is noticeable, but that won't matter to Beats' audience. Beats' brand value will continue to climb.

The press will put the new headphones through their paces and likely be impressed, both with the audio quality (real or not) and the reliability of Bluetooth 5. The battery life of the Bragi-style wireless AirPods will only beat existing alternatives by an hour or maybe two, but reviewers will still recommend them because of Bluetooth 5's benefits and the lack of other options at the time of the iPhone's launch. They'll be good enough (yet expensive enough) to become a fashionable status symbol leading up to the Holidays. Apple Watch runners, in particular, will really enjoy them.

Speaking of the Watch, the new iteration will include Bluetooth 5 as well (further improving its battery life), and so will every Mac that Apple refreshes later this year. The newfound mesh networking capability of these devices will position Apple well to sell new, compelling, home-focused, and high-margin HomeKit accessories early next year.

Let's see what happens on Wednesday.

Post-event update 11/1/2016:

According to Apple's site the iPhone 7 uses Bluetooth 4.2, but I'm not giving up quite yet. In 2014 the iPhone 6 launched with Bluetooth 4.0, but was quietly updated to 4.2 a year later. A full version jump seems less likely, but still possible.

I'm also guessing that Apple's new W1 chip is using parts of Bluetooth 5 to make the interesting interactions between the iPhone 7 and AirPods possible, but they'd rather the press attribute those features to Apple's proprietary magic rather than Bluetooth 5 until competitors start to release comparable products in 2017.