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Four new Bluetooth low energy chips announced at Developer’s Preview

April 20th, 2009 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  10 Comments

At a packed conference hall in Tokyo today, the Bluetooth SIG hosted the first public demonstrations of the new Bluetooth low energy standard to an audience of press and consumer electronics companies.  This new standard will enable a wide range of connected devices to communicate with and through mobile phones.  Four new chips were announced at the all-day event – a sure sign of gathering momentum.

The exciting aspect of Bluetooth low energy is its ability to enable low cost devices to be made that can send their data all of the way to the web.  It’s based on over ten years of experience and promises to have the fastest growing ecosystem of any wireless standard.  Today’s meeting sent a clear message to developers that they need to start designing now to be ready for the first generation of Bluetooth low energy handsets.

Bluetooth low energy (previously known as Wibree) has the potential to be the fastest shipping wireless technology ever.  Fiona Thomson – a key analyst from IMS Research told the meeting attendees of their latest research.  The feedback they have had from a market survey was so positive that they are no longer asking when it will happen, but how long it will take to ship the first billion chips!  That figure could easily be reached and surpassed in the first four years of shipments.  Three chip vendors – Nordic Semiconductor, Texas Instruments and Cambridge Silicon Radio formally announced their single mode Bluetooth low energy chips at the meeting, with TI also announcing a dual-mode chipset.  Taken together with previous public statements from CSR, Broadcom and EM Microelectronics, that brings the tally of Bluetooth low energy chipsets to four single mode chips and three dual mode chips.  As well as the chips themselves, Texas Instruments gave information about a $99 developer’s kit due later this year and Anritsu supported the momentum with a demonstration of their test system for Bluetooth low energy, showing live analysis of radio packets.  (Shown below for the RF cognoscenti.)

Live Analysis of Bluetooth low energy packets

Live Analysis of Bluetooth low energy packets





Bluetooth low energy differs from other wireless standards in that it is a new technology and yet at the same time it is not.  If that sounds like a contradiction, it is, but it is a contradiction that explains why it stands to be so successful.  Bluetooth low energy is new in the fact that it is effectively designed from the ground up to support extremely low power wireless devices.  Although a number of other standards may make that claim, most suffer from limitations, either because of the way they cope with an increasingly noisy radio environment, or the power they need to operate, which makes them incompatible with coin cells.  Bluetooth low energy has been able to benefit from the advantage of hindsight to address these issues, becoming the first interoperable wireless standard that solves these problems.  Where it is not new is in the fact that it has been designed to utilise large portions of standard Bluetooth chips.  What that means is that the next generation of Bluetooth chips for mobile phones and PCs will incorporate low energy alongside traditional Bluetooth at no extra cost, so that there will be a rapid deployment of dual-mode Bluetooth handsets.  IMS Research believes that by 2013, 70% of all mobile phones being sold with Bluetooth functionality will support low energy Bluetooth.

That provides an immense number of phones that can act as gateways to connect devices back to the internet.  They may be health and fitness devices, toys, domestic goods, alarms, or a host of new, connected products.  It lets manufacturers extend their brand from physical hardware to web applications as well as providing a new service model for operators, breaking the current one where their influence stops at the handset.  With Bluetooth low energy their service offering can extend past the handset to fitness, health and connected fashion devices.

Anyone who doubted the momentum of Bluetooth low energy needs to look again.  Much of the development up until this point has been going on behind closed doors for commercial and Intellectual Property reasons.  Today’s public meeting and announcements indicate just how far that work has advanced.  It’s time for every product designer to take a long hard look at how Bluetooth low energy can influence their design roadmap and market space.


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#8 Simon Taylor on 06.17.09 at 3:09 pm

So Nick, how low will this Bluetooth Low Energy go? Will it give ZigBee a run for its money? (would be a good thing IMHO, given the poor take up of ZigBee and the problems they’ve had releasing standards in reasonable timeframes).

Or, will it even give EnOcean a challenge, allowing batteryless, wireless sensors and switches?

#9 Nick on 06.17.09 at 10:25 pm

If by “how far will it go?”, you’re talking about range, then a similar distance to ZigBee. Both share many of the same radio fundamentals – they operate at the same frequency, chips have similar receive sensitivities, modulation techniques give similar effective ranges and FEC schemes are similar. So a side by side comparison will probably come down to the difference between different chips and more importantly, the RF implementation. In my experience range is often limited by poor RF design and antenna matching, rather than by the specification and chip capabilities.

One of the biggest challenges ZigBee has had to face is that it has had to grow its entire ecosystem by itself. Bluetooth has benefitted by having it there for free, courtesy of the mobile phone industry. They’ll do the same again for Bluetooth low energy, so there will be critical mass that designers of low energy products can attach to. It’s something that’s actually much more important for success than anything that exists in either specification.

As for sensors and self powered devices, there’s no reason why the next generation of ZigBee or Bluetooth low energy chips can’t tackle these markets, as the design specs for sleep mode current on both are low enough. What will be much more interesting is to see how the Intellectual Property issues play out.

Siemens were granted a number of key patents for self powered sensors in Europe, which I believe have now passed to EnOcean. In the US, Honeywell and others have similar portfolios. If these patents hold up in court, then these companies could have a very strong influence on the future of self-powered wireless sensors. It’s a subject that’s largely ignored at the moment, as no-one is shifting enough volume for it to be worth the corporate patent lawyers getting out of bed in the morning. When the volumes change to tens of millions, expect some injunctions to start flying. That’s something where ZigBee may also be at risk, as the underlying 802.15.4 radio could be the target of patent trolls. In contrast, the RANDZ status of Bluetooth gives considerably more IP security to manufacturers.

My advice to anyone looking to enter the self-powered wireless sensor market is to make sure they’re aware of the patent issues and start looking for convincing prior art before the injunctions arrive. Regardless of the radio standard you choose, it could be the patent lawyers that ultimately kill your business dream.

#10 Dennis on 07.29.11 at 11:20 pm

Great take off predicted for Bluetooth Low Energy ..
See the trend –

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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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