Bluetooth low energy – the Momentum Builds

It’s been a good week for Bluetooth low energy.  At times it’s felt like a long, slow path since it was first announced as Wibree in October 2006, but that feeling is changing as the standard is coming to completion.  This week saw the first Bluetooth low energy conference take place in Munich where chips vendors were showing off demos, whilst on the other side of the world, at the ARM Techcon in Santa Clara, there were more live demonstrations of the technology.

The mood of the industry has become increasingly upbeat.  It was noticeable in Munich that a significant number of companies have moved from cautious interest to being serious about starting to deploy it.  The questions that they are asking have changed to the practical ones of qualification and access to test equipment.  That change in mood was reinforced by the Bluetooth SIG announcing that the specification is on course to be released this December.  

The Bluetooth low energy standard can be confusing at first.  Although it carries the name Bluetooth, it is a completely new radio with a completely new protocol stack on top of it.   It has been designed from scratch to allow developers to add connectivity to products that only want to send small pieces of data on an irregular basis, but with such low power consumption that it can run on coin cells.  The companies attending the Conference in Munich have understood that difference and are keen to exploit the new products and service models that Bluetooth low energy offers. 

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Who stole my mobile broadband?

Earlier this month OFCOM – the UK’s regulatory body, published a set of maps showing coverage for the five UK networks with a 3G license.  If you’re one of those people who believe the network’s claims about almost universal coverage, they will come as quite a shock.  Rather than a ruddy red glow of national coverage, they make the operators look more akin to a teenager in the first flushes of acne.

They come as a worrying dose of reality given the promises of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report.  Whilst 3 can claim to have something approaching the start of coverage (and I’d stress that it’s only the start of coverage), the efforts of the other four, and in particular O2 is nothing less than shameful.

There are a couple of things that make this even more concerning.  The first is that the results are essentially theoretical, based on an agreed propagation model; OFCOM has yet to validate them on a large scale by checking actual reception.  The report mentions that where a comparison was made with test drive data it resulted in an 8dB correction, but they don’t mention in which direction, or whether it is reflected in the maps.  The second concern is that this is presumably the coverage for voice.  If we look at mobile data, we know two things:  a much better link budget is required to achieve decent data rates as edge effects drastically limit the effective size of the cell when multiple handsets are using it (See my earlier post and Moray Rumney’s excellent article).  If these are applied to the coverage maps, the prospect for national mobile broadband looks like a pipedream.

The question is whether publication of this data will shame the networks into improving their coverage.

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Energy Harvesting – The lights may be going out for ZigBee…

Every farmer knows that if they want a good harvest they need to take care where they sow their seed.  One of the first principles they’ll learn is to sow the seeds on their own land, not their neighbours.  So I was somewhat shocked to see the recent announcement from the ZigBee Alliance about their new Energy Harvesting profile, dubbed ZigBee Green Power.  In their press release they talk about a feature set to establish a global, standard technology for self-powered devices operating through energy harvesting techniques.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that as a goal.  Energy harvesting’s a fascinating area of technology, which has only recently emerged from research into reality, as better generating technology is devised, along with lower power radios.  It’s taken around twenty five years to come to fruition, during which companies and researchers have been actively patenting their ideas and techniques.  Those patents don’t just cover the energy harvesting devices, they cover all of the parts of the chain – generating the power, converting it to a form that can be used, storing it, connecting to a radio and transmitting information.  They also cover the applications, such as wireless light switches.

Hence my amazement at the naivety of the ZigBee Green Power press release.  Whether or not ZigBee can come up with a specification that is able to run on a few tens of microJoules of power is irrelevant – I’m sure they can as they’ve bright people working in the specification group.  What is far more important is whether or not it will be legal for anyone to ship a device that is based on it, as it will almost certainly infringe the Intellectual Property of the main stakeholders.  So the press release looks like either an ill thought out, opportunistic attempt to regain some momentum, or a worrying piece of evidence that the ZigBee Alliance has lost the plot…

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Where’s the Apps Store on the wired Internet?

Everyone in the mobile industry wants to emulate Apple’s success with their Apps Store by having one of their own.  They also want to believe that they’re offering mobile Internet.  But if they were to spend just a few moments looking around they might question the sanity of either view.

There’s no doubt about the success of the Apps store.  Customers with iPhones appear to be deliriously happy to pay to put shortcut icons onto their phones.  But does it make sense?  Or is the industry just repeating the self delusion it first perpetrated when it declared that WAP was mobile Internet? 

There are some fundamental differences between mobile and wired internet, not least of which is, if the Apps Store concept is so good, why doesn’t it exist on the wired internet? Could it be because the mobile and wired internet really aren’t the same thing? The mobile industry does not want to talk about that, as it undermines the whole concept of the mobile internet. So let’s talk about it…

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Peer-to-peer vs Femtocells. Let the topology war begin.

Two of the new wireless technologies that have come to the fore this year are high speed peer to peer connectivity and femtocells.  Although they may not appear to have any obvious connection, I would argue that they do.  Moreover that connection is so strong that they will end up fighting a technology war between themselves for a key customer application.  That’s because they both have a major impact on the way that users transfer data between their personal devices.  Today these two technologies are barely aware of each other – they’re both too busy gazing at their respective technical navels and ignoring the user requirements.  Within twelve months, when they understand the real use cases they’re enabling, they may well be at each other’s throats.

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UK Cameraphone users select Bluetooth as their top service

Forget Apps Stores, music and the web on your phone.  A recent survey by market research analyst TNS has shown that the most used service reported by UK phone users is Bluetooth. 

You know a technology has moved into the mainstream when it starts appearing as a noun or an adjective (much to the annoyance of brand managers).  But in the UK, Bluetooth has just done just that.  We wear our Bluetooths on our ears and Bluetooth our pictures to one another.  It’s nice to discover that this unofficial consensus of colloquial usage has been endorsed by real data.

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