ANT runs scared as Bluetooth low energy appears

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.


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.

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