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Bluetooth streaming problems introduced in Apple's iOS 9.2 remain, have wide ramifications

Apple's iOS 9.2 update in December has caused problems with Bluetooth audio streaming for many users, including hearing aid users. Who or what is to blame, and are there any solutions?

The release of iOS 9.2 on Dec. 8 brought improvements to Apple Music as a highlight, alongside the normal bevy of assorted bug fixes and repairs. Nothing specifically was mentioned for Bluetooth patches. However, nearly immediately, some iPhone owners with car audio solutions using Bluetooth started experiencing problems.

Some users reported no connectivity at all, but more common problems indicated that there was some sort of connection as track info was getting passed to the system, but no audio was playing. Shortly thereafter, some assistive technology users complained of lost Bluetooth functionality that existed in iOS 9.1, most notably the passing of phone call audio from the iPhone to a compatible hearing aid.

So, what happened?

Bluetooth is a catch-all term for a variety of different short range and secure wireless protocols all under one banner. It operates in an unlicensed band of frequencies restricted to "Industrial, Scientific, and Medical" equipment.

The standard protocol is governed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). The Bluetooth SIG contains 30,475 members. Of the membership, 29,920 are adopters meaning companies that use the technology and have little or no say in how the specification works. Associate members total 548 and include heavy users and implementers such as Bose, Braven, Fitbit, and most of the major automotive companies. Associate-level members participate in the specification development process.

Standing above the majority of the members are promoters. Promoters are the heavy-hitters in the organization, and are Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia, and Toshiba. Apple was added to this list in 2015 and was the first member to be added to the promoter ranks since 2005. Promoters have the most say in the future of the protocol, and historically have implemented changes and advances first, before the rest of the membership.

The current "core" specification of Bluetooth is version 4.2, implemented in December 2014. However, an addendum and series of fixes were fully adopted by the membership on December 15, 2015. AppleInsider has learned that the changes to the Bluetooth protocols specified in the addendum were implemented in in the shift from iOS 9.1 to iOS 9.2 on December 8, 2015 which caused the breakdown of some devices.

In the course of our research, we found other Bluetooth connectivity issues that manifested themselves at the same time. A series of assistive equipment for education of the profoundly disabled failed to work at the time of the iOS 9.2 update, but subsequent vendor patches restored functionality for most of the devices.

Who's to blame?

Consumers who have equipment that fails to work after a system patch or firmware update on a "host" like a macOS machine, or iOS device, generally blame the updated hardware as being flawed — and this can be the case, at times.

In the early days of macOS 10.11, many FireWire audio peripherals no longer functioned to to changes in the Apple CoreAudio libraries. No FireWire protocol changes happened between macOS 10.10 and 10.11, and the fault was clearly Apple's.

Subsequent patches to the Mac operating system restored much, if not all, of the previously nonfunctional hardware. Other manufacturers were unwilling to wait, and released updated drivers for hardware.

The situation with iOS 9.2 and Bluetooth connectivity is somewhat different. All bluetooth members are expected to stay as up to date with the protocol as possible in device firmware and software. Apple's iOS 9.2 update accommodated the changes in the protocol, as dictated by the rules of the Bluetooth SIG.

Some car audio systems were affected by the relatively minor shift in the Bluetooth protocol in iOS 9.2. Some of that gear immediately started working again after unpairing and repairing connected Bluetooth devices. Other equipment needed a vendor-issued patch, while other equipment worked later as successively updated the iOS.

Assistive equipment manufacturers generally don't have the same manpower dedicated to electronics as Ford, or other motor companies. Problems introduced by a Bluetooth protocol revision, even slight, may never go addressed over manning or hardware issues, leaving users with a partially functional piece of equipment.

Big-box warehouse chain Costco sells the Kirkland Signature-branded hearing aid based on the original iPhone compatible ReSound LiNX, that allows for volume control and hands-free iPhone conversation through the device. With the release of iOS 9.2, connectivity was broken. In the case of the Costco hearing aids, customers were directed to bring the devices back to Costco audiology for a firmware update, which rectified the problem.

On the other hand, the Oticon Streamer Pro is a Bluetooth receiver that turns a pair of compatible hearing aids into a small wireless headset for the convenience of the hearing impaired. It allows users to switch seamlessly between an iPhone, a microphone, and another source of audio. It also functioned as a phone headset in conjunction with the Bluetooth connection on an iPhone, until the protocol changes in iOS 9.2 were introduced.

AppleInsider reader Michael reached out to us, and discussed with us his issues with the Oticon Streamer Pro after the iOS 9.2 update. "After numerous engagements with Apple on the issue resulting in a phone swap and basic technical support such as resetting network settings, reinstalling IOS etc. the problem still prevails" said Michael. "My 14 year old son is equally frustrated."

Michael didn't limit his inquires about the problem to just Apple's tech support personnel. "The updates that Apple has rolled out since then have been for unrelated issues," Oticon told Michael in an email. "Teams at Oticon's headquarters continue to work with Apple to find a resolution for Streamer Pro."

Oticon suggested that the user of the Streamer Pro shift to a wired connection to the phone in the interim, or downgrade the iPhone firmware — a procedure not supported by Apple. Oticon has not as of yet responded to our inquiries about the matter.

So, who's to blame for the problem, and who needs to fix it? It remains hard to point a finger at a single culprit. While the iOS 9.2 patch itself did cause problems with functionality in some Bluetooth wireless devices beyond just audio, the protocol that caused the problem is dictated by the Bluetooth SIG and doled out to all members for implementation, including Oticon.

Hardware not yet updated by a vendor to the new errata, such as the Oticon Streamer Pro, may continue to pose problems for owners until a software solution is found, and it may never be depending on a number of factors. In a perfect world, the solution is Apple, the Bluetooth SIG, and hardware vendors all working together instead of blaming each other for the problem, or denying that a problem exists.

In Apple's defense, there have been some fixes for Bluetooth audio above and beyond the protocol shift in December in iOS, but none of them have addressed the specific problems with Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids.

The future, and the past

Time, hardware, and software marches on. The decades past are littered with deprecated hardware as a result of OS advances over time, be it iOS, macOS, Android, or Windows. Apple stops updating software for its own hardware intentionally from time to time — ask any LaserWriter owner how OS X advances have treated them, or owners of an original iPad how the last three years have gone. A LaserWriter or an iPad is not a third party's piece of gear out of Apple's control, nor is it particularly essential to life, however.

It has never been fair to demand that somebody abandon a very expensive piece of assistive gear as a result of a software update. AppleInsider hopes that a solution for those suffering from this Bluetooth protocol is found by either the vendor, or Apple, or both — but we are also concerned that it may not be.

As technology advances, problems are often introduced as a result either by accident, or by design. In the case of the Bluetooth protocol changes in iOS 9.2 the problems are from both accident and design, and there is no single party to blame.