The Smartphone Is the Swiss Army Knife of Gadgets

The smartphone is becoming the most indispensable device we own. It serves as a multi-function gadget, and as the hub for connecting to all types of other devices and services.

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Each time this year, my wife asks me what I want for Christmas. When it comes to giving me gifts, I truly frustrate her.

I’m a gadget freak. I love techie toys. And in my line of work, I get a lot of them to test and play with. If I see something I really like, I impulsively buy it myself.

However, over the years, my wife would still listen in on conversations I would have with my geeky son or tech friends in order to glean anything she could regard something I might really want. One year, she deciphered that I would really like a handheld GPS system to take with me on the road. Another year she determined that I would like a compact digital camera with a telephoto lens so I could snap pictures of interesting slides I saw during tech event presentations. Another year, she got me a digital compass; she was keenly aware that due to my nickname of “Wrong Way Bajarin,” I could use some help figuring out north from south and east from west.

She also decided I could use a digital level since my sense of perspective was highly questionable when I hung pictures around the house. She even got me a keychain flashlight to make sure I would not stumble in dark places. She also bought me a pedometer so I could track my steps.

As we were discussing things I might want this Christmas, it dawned on us that much of the gadgets we have bought as individual products in the past are now available as smartphone features. For instance, since I often have to interview people in our research sessions, I now use my smartphone as a digital voice recorder instead of buying a single dedicated voice recorder as I would have in the past.I don’t know if Steve Jobs or Apple execs understood that with the iPhone, they were creating much more than a smartphone. It has kind of morphed into the Swiss Army knife of gadgets.

Sure, they understood that by creating an operating system and a set of developer tools that the iPhone could have a lot of functionality beyond just voice, games and entertainment. But I really doubt they envisioned that a smartphone could become a multitool gadget in its own right. All of the individual products I mentioned above are now just features or functions built into smartphone apps. There are dozens of other things that a smartphone can do that in the past had to be bought as dedicated gadgets with standalone functions.

As I look closer at the smartphone and its increasing intelligence and functionality, it has become clear that this device is the most important screen in our digital lives. It is the one device that we carry with us all the time and use dozens of times a day for various purposes. So while it has become the Swiss Army knife of gadgets, it has also become a hub in our digital lives. And there is a particular technology that has been developed that helps smartphones become hubs in a lot of ways. This technology is called Bluetooth.

If you have a PC, tablet or smartphone, you are already familiar with Bluetooth, as it has impacted your digital lifestyle in many ways. Bluetooth’s communication range is about 30 feet, and one important part of its feature-set is that it can deliver a continuous stream of data. I use it a lot for hands-free communications in my car as well as with a Plantronics BackBeat GO wireless headset for listening to music and podcasts during my daily walk.

Over the years, Bluetooth has evolved to become more stable, more powerful and is being used in thousands of applications and services. The newest version of the Bluetooth spec, known as version 4.1, has one updated feature that I believe is quite important and will drive a lot of new hub-like innovation in the future. Known as Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE for short, this feature allows for short bursts of data transmissions instead of a continuous stream that ultimately has an impact on the battery life of the device it is in. For example, in my Plantronics BackBeat GO headset, which uses standard Bluetooth protocols, I can stream about four hours of continuous music before the battery dies. However, in a device that uses BLE, the battery could last days or even weeks depending on the type of application and battery used with the device. BLE was actually in the Bluetooth 4.0 spec but in version 4.1, it has greater support for LTE, more range and more power.

A good example of this is in another device I use all the time called the Nike+ Fuelband. This device has a Bluetooth Low Energy radio in it that can communicate with my iPhone or my Samsung S4 smartphone. I check the data on this device multiple times a day, but each evening I download the data to my iPhone using BLE in a simple burst of data. More importantly, I can go at least a week without charging the Nike+ Fuelband since it only connects to the Bluetooth radio when I activate it and just sends short bursts of information to my smartphone.

There are hundreds of new devices and applications that are either on the market or on the horizon that include products in categories such as sports and fitness, medical and wellness devices, and connected apps for the smart home. I already mentioned its use in fitness with the Nike+ Fuelband, but BLE is in pretty much all modern-day fitness devices that communicate with smartphones, tablets and PCs. Adidas has even created smart footballs and soccer balls with sensors in them that report distance traveled, spin, speed and provide analysis of an action. They will be on the market in 2014.

As for medical devices, they are showing up in diabetic blood test kits, blood pressure cuffs and other areas. Here is a great primer from ConnectBlue that shows how BLE works within the healthcare industry. Note that in these cases, the devices send bursts of data to smartphones or tablets and then, using a wireless connection, it can transmit that data to your healthcare provider for real-time analysis.

In smart homes, BLE connects with sensors to turn on lights, regulate temperature and is being integrated into all kinds of smart appliances and electronic products in the home. BLE is even showing up in door locks. Kwikset’s Kevo, for instance, turns your iPhone into your key. It has a sensor in it and when you wave your iOS device in front of it, the door opens.

As you can see, the smartphone is becoming the most indispensable device we own. It serves as a multi-function gadget, and as the hub for connecting to all types of other devices and services. Who knew that when Steve Jobs gave us the iPhone, he would unleash one of the most powerful digital tools people can own — and that it would become so much more than a smartphone?

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

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