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Dead ANT? Apple and Nordic join the Bluetooth board.

August 8th, 2011 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  2 Comments

One of the more interesting recent announcements in the wireless space has been the appointment of two new companies to the Board of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) – Apple and Nordic Semiconductor.

Neither are immediately obvious candidates, which is what makes this interesting.  But taking a deeper look their appointment could highlight some interesting changes in where Bluetooth is going.

For those who don’t know how they’re structured, most industry standards groups, (as opposed to Standards Development Organisations or SDOs, which we’ll get to in a minute), consist of a Board of Directors whose role it is to guide the development, marketing and certification of the standard.  In the early days, these were normally companies with a vested interest in using the standard.  As the standard matures, these companies tend to drift away, to be replaced with chip manufacturers who want to evolve the standard to keep competitors out of the market.  In most cases, these industry groups tend to get things done faster, as they limit who can take part in writing the standards, generally to companies with a vested interest who are prepared to pay for the privilege. 

In contrast SDOs tend to be more open, allowing academic institutions to participate.  That often means they’re favoured by governments, who fund academic institutions to get involved and don’t necessarily care when the work is completed.  It’s the old case of too many cooks.  So SIGs and their Boards have a lot going for them.

Bluetooth largely set the standard for how to constitute a SIG (if you’ll pardon the pun), with a founding set of five members – Toshiba, IBM, Ericsson, Nokia and Intel back in 1998.    “What, no Microsoft?”, I hear you say, as did most of the rest of the industry.  For eighteen months every US journalist rubbished Bluetooth for this omission, until in December of 1999 the board was extended to include Microsoft, along with Motorola and the dearly departed 3Com and Agere.  That didn’t stop the media claiming Bluetooth was dead.  However, like Mark Twain, reports of its death were somewhat exaggerated, as proven by fact it ships a couple of billion chips every year.

The Bluetooth SIG has hitherto carried out a rather Stalinist policy towards board membership, trying to insist that it never changes and that any company who is on the Board has always been on the Board.  And despite some attrition over the years, it has kept the board very much the same.  That contrasts with other similar organisations, which have been more ready to shuffles the directorial cards.  Even when conspiracy theorists suggested that Steve Jobs might join back in 2002, the Bluetooth Board kept a wary distance and declined to act.

Which makes the current announcement all the more interesting.  It’s been a difficult few years for standards organisations.  As the recession has taken hold, large organisations, who traditionally provide the board members for these standards organisations have tightened their belts and withdrew their support, leaving the daily work to their stack and chip suppliers.  The Bluetooth board has held remarkably firm against this trend, although it has a set of crown jewels in terms of its IP ownership, which other standards bodies can only look at envy.  Access to that has been an important factor behind the stability that the Bluetooth Board has experienced over the years.  But despite that, they’ve no opened the doors, albeit with an interesting disclaimer that the appointments are only for an initial period of two years.  The cynical might say that gives them just long enough to get disillusioned, but not long enough to effect any change.

Why the change?  Both appointments suggest an intent to push the new Bluetooth low energy standard.  Nordic Semiconductor were one of the pioneers of Bluetooth low energy back in the days when it was still called Wibree.  Getting a Board seat ahead of the more established chip vendors such as Broadcom, CSR, Qualcomm and TI is a real coup and as clear an indication as you can get that Bluetooth low energy is about to get the attention it deserves.

Apple is more interesting.  It’s almost ten years since those early rumours that it should be on the board, during which it’s been responsible for some excellent Bluetooth implementations (on the Macs) and some abysmal one on the iPhone, where it’s authentication chip has turned a standard into a proprietary walled garden.  Despite their superb product design and marketing, they’re a relative newcomer to the standards community, generally relying on external standards rather than sharing their expertise to create new, open ones.

Again, the clue for their appointment is in Bluetooth low energy and what it offers.  A key market for low energy has always been personal health and fitness devices.  The new MacBook Air and Mac mini appear to be planning to make full use of these, as reported in the latest releases on the Bluetooth website.  Let’s hope that these don’t try to cripple the standard with more proprietary extensions or authentication.  The market needs Bluetooth low energy to be open and interoperable.

The one remaining question is “why stop at two new members”?  There’s still the invisible gorilla in the short range space, which is Google.  Their announcements of Android@Home during their I/O conference suggested that they could be the ideal partner for Bluetooth low energy, as they could bring their API expertise to the top of the low energy stack.  Of course, they still can.  And it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s high level API for developers will emerge as an open standard for the Bluetooth low energy community?  Low energy developers need a single API, not a proliferation of them.

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The other interesting question is what this means for other standards?  Whilst Bluetooth low energy has been slowly emerging from its cocoon, other pretenders have been making hay.  Notably ANT+, which has attracted a growing following in the health and fitness arena.  Most of these products use a Nordic chip (recently augmented by silicon from TI), but with Nordic on the Bluetooth board, and Apple hopefully providing the powerhouse for independent product developers, does this appointment close the door for ANT and start a steady attrition of their existing supporters?

The race is on and only time will tell.  This is a major step for the Bluetooth board to take and could have ramifications far greater than initially considered.  One that hasn’t been mentioned is where the SIG goes in terms of location.  The appointment of Microsoft to the Board back in 1999 signalled the start of an inexorable transition of the Bluetooth headquarters from Kansas City to Seattle.  I wonder whether the addition of Apple might provoke a similar relocation in a few years’ time to Cupertino?

Wherever the SIG may land, let’s hope that the road forward for Bluetooth low energy is now clear.  It’s difficult to think of a better starting pistol.  All we need now is to get enough runners on the track and make sure they’re all facing in the same direction.

2 comments ↓

#1 William Harrold on 08.23.11 at 9:57 am

Nick, Interesting article. One question, just because Nordic has joined the board of the Bluetooth SIG, why does that meet that ANT is dead? Might it not be that Nordic is just backing all the horses BLE, ANT and its proprietary stuff as hard as it can. The move is pro BLE, but why is it necessarily against ANT.

#2 Nick on 08.29.11 at 12:18 pm

It’s not necessarily the death knell for ANT. As you say, many chip vendors support a wide raft of different standards. But it marks a distinct change in the landscape, which is likely to make ANT’s future progress more difficult. For the past three years ANT has gained ground because it was the only standard which was doing anything in the health and fitness space. Bluetooth and ZigBee made a lot of noise, but didn’t deliver anything. ANT seized the opportunity and worked closely with manufacturers to get itself adopted.

However, it didn’t gain enough momentum to carry it into the position of being the de facto health and fitness standard. Nor did it get into the lifestyle products such as the iPhone which will probably move this market to the next level. That’s why this announcement is dangerous for it. If Apple implements Bluetooth low energy in its next generation of products, it will spawn more applications and products than ANT could have dreamt of. Many may ultimately fail, but Apple doesn’t base its success on reading its reviews – it just weighs them.

If this happens, Nordic will find themselves swamped supporting Apple and all of the developers wanting to make compatible Bluetooth low energy devices. And when Apple says jump, that’s the way Nordic will jump. Which means that more and more of their resources are likely to be dedicated to Bluetooth Low Energy development, with diminishing support for ANT developers. They may find a way of balancing these pressures, but very few silicon companies have ever managed it. If you’re a medium sized chip company and you acquire a big customer, your business model rapidly changes to place all of its focus on that one customer.

A solution could be for ANT to go open source, but that’s a big step for it to take, and one that could challenge its interoperability. It’s certainly not dead yet and has some time to work out its strategy, but it has moved from a market where its competitors have given it free rein to win to a new market where they will now be attempting to steal of its existing customers.

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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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