The Bluetooth SIG unveiled its 2.1 spec today: Ephraim Schwartz of InfoWorld gave a preview 10 days ago, and the wraps were taken off at the cell industry trade show CTIA today. Bluetooth 2.1 makes pairing two devices a snap. Power usage has been taken down several notches, too, allowing five times the battery life for devices that don't send continuous data, such as mice, keyboards, watches, sensors, and "medical devices," the SIG says.
As a 2.1 spec, one hopes that some devices will upgradable to support new pairing. There was no announcement as to whether manufacturers were planning upgrades. Conceivably, most of the changes are at the application layer, and existing silicon could support the process using existing circuits, or by offloading elements to the operating system driver. The lower-power mode sounds like a protocol change that could be handled in a firmware upgrade, except that the devices likely to benefit from it also are likely to have no rewritable memory nor an interface by which to update their firmware.
I haven't seen a demonstration yet, but I'm familiar with the methods by which Bluetooth pairing has been simplified. In the past, pairing two devices meant navigating down several menus or depressing buttons, and then inventing a code on one device and entering it on the other, or finding the code that was embedded in the device by default. It could take as many as 14 steps with some sets of devices to pair them.
The new method is much simpler. You'll push a button on a headless Bluetooth device, and then choose Add Bluetooth Device or a similar simple item from a top-level entry on a phone, computer, or handheld. You're done. If you need security, such as pairing two computers, you'll push one computer into pairing mode, and enter a code that computer generates into an interface on the other machine. And you're done.
And you beat the man-in-the-middle attack. The new system creates a strong passkey, so you don't have to invent a PIN, and the out-of-band display of the passkey on the initiating device allows confirmation of the integrity of the encrypted connection. (Apple had its own version of this with a PIN: when pairing, Mac OS X generates a random PIN you enter in the paired device.)
It's so simple, you wish that they had developed this, say, four years ago. But times change, and ideas evolve. Nobody invented Bluetooth pairing to make life hard. And engineers don't think that 14 well-documented steps are a bar to use.
The new Bluetooth 2.1 methods are rather similar to a couple of modes in Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), with some differences in implementation, but the same ease of use. (I've tested WPS with the new 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station and a properly equipped Mac with an N adapter. Lovely, simple, fast--and very secure.)
Bluetooth 2.1 also supports near-field communication (NFC) as an option, where you hold two devices close to each other when engaged in the pairing process. NFC isn't available on a widespread basis yet, but there's a lot of interest in it.