BLE set to explode as Android users grow

Retailers and brands are abuzz with talk of beacons while rolling out tests and apps that utilize Bluetooth Low Energy. But for all the current buzz, the technology is poised to really break out as Android (NASDAQ:GOOG) devices with embedded BLE are set to hit the market.

"(BLE) is totally exploding right now and frankly has exceeded my expectations," said Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. "I knew the building blocks were in place, but the pace is amazing."

And about to pick up. Roughly 1.5 billion BLE enabled devices shipped in 2013 worldwide, according to ABI Research. A drop in the bucket as an estimated 19 billion BLE enabled devices are expected to ship over the next five years.  

While Bluetooth penetration is high — close to 90 percent in all mobile phones, according to IHS — the integration of Bluetooth Smart is just getting started. IHS Technology predicts that classic Bluetooth technology will ultimately be replaced by BLE, placing these retail-friendly mobile devices in the hands of most shoppers.

"Bluetooth Smart Ready will have the majority of shipments over the next five years compared to Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Classic," according to ABI Research Director Philip Solis. "During that time, Bluetooth Smart Ready will experience steady growth, while Bluetooth Smart will grow rapidly, with Bluetooth 'Classic' fading away." Broadcom, CSR, TI, Qualcomm Atheros, MediaTek, and others are well positioned to capitalize on this growth.

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was the first to embrace the tech, and embed BLE into its devices, but Android users outnumber iOS users two to one, globally, noted Jawanda. Android phones weren't BLE enabled until the 4.3 operating system was released in late 2013.

"We will start to see tens of millions of new enabled devices come into people's hands in the next few years," said Jawanda. "We're just at the beginning of this."

Retailers are at the beginning, as well. Macy's (NYSE:M), American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO) and Walgreens (NYSE:WAG) are among the many retailers embracing beacons and BLE, taking advantage of the technology's ability to directly communicate meaningful information to shoppers where it will be the most impactful.

"The use cases are all around retail because that's where the money is right now," said Jawanda. "This is exploding really fast. For retail, there's absolutely money here." The cost of entry is quite low and the level of shopper engagement quite high.

Retail is the early focus for BLE but it won't be the only one. Already, sport stadiums and entertainment venues are turning on beacons to amp up the experience for attendees.

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