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ANT runs scared as Bluetooth low energy appears

July 14th, 2010 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  10 Comments

It’s always interesting seeing how industries react to new entrants.  ANT has been having a successful time in persuading sports and fitness manufacturers to use its standard for wireless connectivity.  That’s partly because it does what it says on the tin and partly because it’s not had a lot of competition.

This week, following the launch of Bluetooth low energy, the FAQ on the ANT website makes the strange claim that once Bluetooth low energy becomes available in mobile phones, ANT devices can take advantage of a bridge in watches to talk to phones.  It’s difficult to understand what, other than desperation at the advent of real competition, is driving them to say that.  It’s like telling vegetarians that you have a cunning plan which will enable them to eat meat.

anteatermed1

Let’s start with the actual question and answer on the ANT site:

Q: Where does ANT fit with Bluetooth low energy (BT-LE)?

A: ANT is thrilled at the prospect of an ultra-low power, low cost wireless portal into cell phones (via an extension to Bluetooth called “low energy”) becoming available at some point in the future. Those wishing to deploy products now and in the next couple of years will be pleased to know that ANT and the ANT+ Interoperable Ecosystem are available now and are proven with millions of installed nodes. Once BT-LE does become available, ANT will provide a seamless, cost effective bridge solution for use in products like watches to enable forward compatibility with the millions of ANT+ devices already in the field at that time. Applications will then be able to take advantage of the best of ANT and ANT+ based products as well as connecting to next generation Bluetooth enabled devices.

I’m glad they’re thrilled about the prospect of Bluetooth low energy, as I am too.  What I don’t quite understand is how they think it is relevant to their future business plan.  Other than as a threat.

Unlike industry standards, like ZigBee and Bluetooth, ANT+ is a wireless standard that was developed by a single company – in this case Dynastream.  It’s not alone in that, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but there are some subtle but important differences between the two approaches.  The first is that standards generated by industry groups normally have multiple companies selling chips. 

It costs a lot to design a wireless chip – typically something between $2 million and $10 million.  So the best way to ensure multiple sources of chips is to get multiple silicon vendors involved in writing the standards.  Having multiple chip suppliers gives manufacturers confidence in the longevity of the standard, increases the number of experts contributing to the standard, so they’re more robust and reliable and helps to get the standard into mainstream products like laptops and phones.  This increases the volumes, driving down the price of chips, persuading more people to use the standard.  It’s a virtuous circle that can work well to get a standard from millions to billions of chips.

Bluetooth low energy was only formally adopted last week, but it already has five different companies offering chips.  For most of its five year life ANT has only had one chip supplier – the specialist RF chip company Nordic Semiconductor, although TI has recently announced support for it.  So it’s not yet seen massive growth, nor is it integrated into any phone of PC.  Whereas Bluetooth low energy will be, as it becomes part of the next generation of Bluetooth chips, which are already in these products.

The ANT answer tacitly acknowledges that it won’t make it into phones, hence the suggestion that it would need a bridge in a watch that converts ANT to Bluetooth.  However, this means the watch needs two radios, which would effectively double its power consumption, halving its battery life.  Which is not the ideal approach for a low power solution.

The second difference between industry standards and company developed ones is that in the latter case it means that one company owns all of the intellectual property in the standard.  They either licence this to each company using it, or bundle the licence through the chips.  It’s an approach that can make it faster to get to market, but it can cause worries.  Standards with lots of members generally ask every member company to agree to pool any relevant patents or IP so that everyone can use them without risk of infringement.  That means that the chance of patent infringement is low, particularly for a standard like Bluetooth, where over 13,000 companies have signed up to this principle.  The risk is not non-existent, but it’s about as good as you’ll get.  It also means that no single company can change their mind and withdraw a patent or control who they are selling the technology to.

That may not normally be a problem with a company owned standard.  It wasn’t with ANT.  Until Garmin acquired them.  At which point a lot of sports and fitness manufacturers realised that they were relying on a wireless technology that was owned by one of their competitors.

Companies are pragmatic; they generally realise that in the early stages of a market, it’s better to work together to grow the opportunity, rather than fight each other.  So the use of ANT has grown.  It’s readily available, easy to use, and it has a fast, efficient process to add new profiles.  But as Bluetooth low energy has come closer to market, more and more of these companies have started to show an interest in jumping ship.  That’s not just to move to a non-competitive licensing regime, but also to take advantage of the potential connections that they can make with billions of Bluetooth low energy enabled mobile phones.  And Bluetooth low energy has put in place a process for introducing new profiles which is just as fast and efficient as that within ANT.  So it will be able to support most of the applications that currently use ANT within the coming months.

That’s a prospect that obviously has ANT rattled.  Within five days of the publication of the Bluetooth low energy standard they’re posting this answer that they can “bridge” to Bluetooth low energy.  It’s certainly possible, but sports and fitness manufacturers don’t need to bridge if they adopt Bluetooth low energy in their products – they can connect directly. 

And any implication that the two are compatible is nonsense – they’re different radios and protocol stacks.  Time will tell which standard is adopted by the industry – they need to compete on their merits.  But it looks as if Bluetooth low energy has won the first round, just by announcing its existence.

(If you’d like to buy one of the anteater toys, go to Custom Coastal Store.  I’m not sure if it has blue teeth, but I thought its blue snout was rather appropriate.)

10 comments ↓

#1 WSNobservation on 07.15.10 at 5:57 pm

Hi Nick,

Nice post that put many facts of ANT on the table. I am always trying to be neutral when talking about the many ULP wireless solutions in the market. I think while your post makes many points, it misses some at the same time.

First is the FAQ. I do not think it is new after the launch of BLE. I saw it long time ago. If you read it carefully, there is a hint “The ANT+ Alliance is 98 members strong (as of November 2008) and growing rapidly.” So I assume you could get a clue how old this FAQ is. (…Poor marketing of ANT)

Things have changed a lot in the past 18 months. I recommend another post published the same as this one about the racing coverage of Tour de France
http://ow.ly/2bH5H. This post tells us what is the latest direction of ANT and how close it is of have ANT in phones. I won’t be surprised if we see one or two commercialized phone with ANT using the TI chip this year. I have seen plenty of evidences of consumer traction.

The cost advantage of BLE chip over ANT can not be a valid point. ANT and BLE share similar radio and semiconductor architecture. The post about Tour de France hinted that the same TI part supports both BLE and ANT without any hardware change. So scale of economics will benefit both BLE and ANT of no difference. Having this been said, ANT part may be more expensive depending on how greedy ANT is. All in all, ANT is a proprietary based solution with an open API (ANT+)

Your other points all make sense. To some degree, I tend to compare ANT with Apple. I think people will both love it and hate it. I do not think BLE will kill ANT and vice versa. I hope these two can play nicely.

wsnobservation.blogspot.com

#2 Akiba on 07.16.10 at 12:07 am

One thing to keep in mind is that ANT is not a physical layer protocol. It’s a MAC/NWK/APP layer protocol which is purely software. Hence it doesn’t surprise me that they can run on different hardware from Nordic and TI. From a PHY point of view, Bluetooth Low Energy is just a 2.4 GHz FHSS wireless protocol so it is possible for other protocols to ride on top of it, other than the BLE MAC/NWK/APP protocols.

#3 Nick on 07.16.10 at 3:54 pm

True in terms of ANT, but not Bluetooth. Bluetooth specifies everything from the radio up to and including the profiles, so you can’t take just the radio and put something else on top of it. Even if you could buy just the radio chip (which you can’t), the Bluetooth SIG owns the IP and won’t allow the use of just a portion of the spec.

The rationale for doing the whole thing is that you have better control of interoperability and coexistence. The latter because you’re effectively controlling the media access for devices that use your channel and modulation schemes. In theory that shouldn’t matter, because a radio and MAC designer should ensure that any unexpected packets would get discarded. In the real world, implementations aren’t perfect and different MACs on the same radio channel can cause major problems. ZigBee saw that a few years ago at the Sensors show in Chicago, when some proprietary 802.15.4 stacks caused major problems with some of the ZigBee implementations.

#4 Niclas on 07.29.10 at 9:43 am

ANT has not been very successful anywhere. In volumes counted the most successful proprietary is Polar W.I.N.D, not ANT. It’s just that not many people knows that.

Even if ANT is part of a TI stack in a phone I do not think that many phone manufacturer will enable it, in particular as they probably have to opt between supporting BLE or ANT. The phone manufacturers will long term support BLE and Continua, that is where the market will be.

#5 Steve on 10.08.10 at 3:49 pm

ANT not available in phones? Sure it is. For about a year (?), Nike has been selling a runner’s gadget that sends data via ANT+ to an iPhone.

#6 Nick on 10.08.10 at 4:04 pm

I don’t know whether this is ANT or whether it’s a proprietary radio. I’m assuming ANT knows, but I’ve looked on their product directory at http://www.thisisant.com/modules/mod_product-directory.php and can’t find either Apple or Nike listed. So I have to assume that if ANT does not think this is an ANT product, it probably isn’t.

#7 Wes on 10.20.10 at 12:47 am

That listing is for ANT+ products, not vanilla ANT. The ‘+’ adds a more standardized interoperability layer to the protocol.

The Nike+ sensor doesn’t use full ANT+, but it IS based on ANT:

http://techon.nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_EN/20060724/119373/
http://www.cs.washington.edu/research/systems/nikeipod/tracker-paper.pdf

… as are, apparently, most of the other proprietary protocols for similar devices. It appears ANT+ is an effort to unify the various ANT flavours under a single interoperable banner.

#8 Nick on 10.20.10 at 11:51 am

I’m going to be pedantic here. If a product does not use the standard or does not follow the qualification procedure set down by that standard, then IT IS NOT A STANDARD. To my mind, a key goal of these standards is to provide seamless interoperability for consumers. If you think you can generate a market for proprietary products, that’s not a problem. Some proprietary implementations become so popular that in time they turn into de facto standards. But claiming it’s a standard in these circumstance is strtching the truth a very long way.

#9 nex on 10.28.10 at 4:09 pm

Hi

Nice review;)

I am sure that ANT will be compatible with Bluetooth in the long run.

ANT has over 200 members i the ANT alliance.

Best regards.

ANT member;)

#10 Nick on 10.28.10 at 7:40 pm

At a radio and protocol level ANT and Bluetooth won’t be compatible – at those levels the two standards can no more talk together than two people who talk different languages. But that doesn’t neccessarily matter. If ANT is successful, chip makers will develop chips that can talk to each separately and application developers will write apps that hide this difference from the user. That’s effectively what happens in mobile phones, where the user is unaware of which of up to half a dozen radios is being used at any one time for the cellular link.

However, for that to happen, ANT must become sufficiently successful to make it worthwhile for the chip companies to do that. I think it has a chance, albeit a slim one. If it can gain critical mass in the next eighteen months, before Bluetooth low energy gets volume, then it may establish itself as the de facto standard for health and fitness devices. If it doesn’t manage that, then it is likely to die a slow death. Membership numbers alone don’t help. ANT may have over 200, Bluetooth has over 13,000. It’s down to which members make the most compelling products that the public wants to buy. It only needs one or two to make a really mould-breaking product and the dynamics can change. That’s the challenge for both standards – to find a few members who can really wow the public and change the way we think about health and fitness products.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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