Just in time for the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the GSM Association has published a new milestone – the number of mobile subscribers in the world has just passed the four billion mark. That’s a pretty amazing number – equivalent to almost 60% of the world’s population. It seems that the demand for mobile connectivity is unstoppable. The same report predicts that the number of subscriptions will rise to six billion in 2013. That’s one phone for every person over the age of ten.
With numbers as spectacular as these it’s easy to sit back, smile smugly and give ourselves a well deserved pat on the back. But there’s another school of thought that says is six billion just being complacent? The insatiable desire for personal connectivity will almost certainly deliver the six billion, but what about the market for mobile subscriptions for machines. M2M has always been touted as the next great marketplace for mobile connectivity. The GSM Association acknowledges this with a new initiative. But if we look at numbers of machines, they’re an order of magnitude greater than people. Some years back Deloitte suggested that there would be 60 billion machines in existence by 202. If just a small percentage of these are connected, then the six billion target begins to look decidedly unambitious.
Last week’s announcement that the IP behind Meshnetics’ ZigBee stack is being acquired by Atmel underlines the continuing consolidation of the short range wireless industry. Since the boom in short range wireless that was started by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi there has been a growing number of VC funded silicon and stack companies entering this market space. It has been obvious for some time that the number of companies is not sustainable and that at some point the bubble would burst. The sale of Zensys to Sigma heralded the start of the process. 2009 will be the year when momentum builds and a lot more wireless dreams hit the buffers.
This is going to be the year of the Femtocell. At least that’s the message that the industry is putting forward. Next month at the Mobile Congress in Barcelona, the industry is likely to be united in singing off that particular hymn sheet. However, an RFQ from a network operator that was put out just before Christmas suggests that opinion might not be as solid as the industry hype portrays. Rather than looking for femtocells, this particular operator was contemplating the deployment of small 802.11 access points around the home, connected together and to the broadband line using HomePlug. The implication is that instead of providing a personal 3G cell in the home to compensate for their lack of indoor coverage, they’d prefer to flood it with Wi-Fi. It’s an interesting approach…
This year will see the arrival of a new short range wireless standard that is set to revolutionise the way that devices are made. That’s not a new claim – I recall it being made for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Home-RF and DECT, amongst others. Some succeeded massively, some struggled on and some failed. This year sees another technology join the fold and I’m confident that it will make a bigger change that any that has preceded it.
The technology I’m talking about is called Bluetooth low energy. Don’t be fooled by thinking it’s a variant of Bluetooth – that would be a mistake. Although it’s part of the Bluetooth family of standards, and designed to coexist within an existing Bluetooth chip, it’s a totally new standard, designed from the bottom up to fulfil a new set of requirements.
Those requirements are to enable a new generation of products that can connect to mobile phones. It covers everything from fashion accessories, watches, fitness and medical devices to office and security products. The essential thing is that they can be low power, low cost devices that only need to send small amounts of data. That allows them to be run off batteries that don’t need regular charging. In fact most of them will run for years on single coin cells.
As well as connecting to your phone as accessories, they’ll also be able to use the phone to send their data over your mobile network to a remote web service. That’s where Bluetooth low energy becomes really powerful, as it allows your mobile phone to act as a gateway.