Continua Health Alliance takes the bigamous route – Bluetooth and ZigBee.

After months of debate, the Continua Health Alliance finally announced its choice of wireless technology for low power medical devices.  Bluetooth low energy and ZigBee have been the key antagonists in this process and today Continua decided to make it a threesome and share its bed with both partners.

Both brides proudly announced the forthcoming nuptials, Bluetooth claiming that it had been chosen as the Health Device Standard, and ZigBee pronouncing that it has been selected for the next generation standard.

Whilst most people outside the specification groups will dismiss this as irrelevant, it does have some important implications, as it presents medical device manufacturers with a dilemma – which of these two wireless standards do they choose?  We’re at a point in time where we’re about to witness a new phenomenon of internet connected, consumer medical devices, which will open up the possibility of a new era of personal healthcare.  If manufacturers become confused about which of two incompatible standards to use, they’ll delay their products, with a resulting delay in availability and implementation.  It’s important that doesn’t happen.

At a top level, this decision seems clear – Bluetooth low energy will be used for PAN (Personal Area Devices) – the ones that we carry around with us.  And ZigBee will be used for LAN (Local Area Network) devices – the ones that tend to stay within a building, either a home or hospital.  Go back thirty years and that’s the same sort of differentiation that was applied to telephones.  We had fixed phones in our homes and a few people had walkie-talkies for when they were outside.  But today that differentiation has disappeared.

The same is going to be true for consumer medical devices.  Although they will start out as personal devices that we keep discreetly hidden in our bedrooms or bathrooms, very soon they will become mobile devices.  That’s already happening with sports and fitness devices, where there’s healthy market for pedometers and heart rate belts.  As we evolve through a few generations of products, they’ll become smaller, more discrete and less obtrusive in the way they measure us.  And that equates with more mobile and more personal.  It removes the distinction between PAN and WAN – they just become the things we carry.

 Which brings us back to the dilemma facing device manufacturers.  It’s vitally important that they don’t delay their development plans, but they need to decide which of the two technologies to go with.  My personal view is that Bluetooth will dominate.  There are some technical reasons for that, but the biggest one is not technical – it’s scale.  Bluetooth based medical devices will be able to connect to mobile phones, which exist in billions.  So a Bluetooth medical device already has something to connect to.  In contrast, only a few million ZigBee devices have been sold.  It means that a company making a ZigBee based medical device has the additional cost of providing a ZigBee adaptor that can plug into a PC or phone.  

Vince Holton, writing on the Incisor blog, thinks Bluetooth will dominate.  He quotes Mike Foley – executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, who, when asked to quantify it, said that on a scale of importance, it was (for him at least) “one step below the potential Microsoft Yahoo acquisition”.  I’m not sure that I know what that means, but it sounds convincing and ought to get the financial community interested.

 Bluetooth provides the scale that is the honeypot for applications.  There’s already a growing and enthusiasm community of application developers writing apps for mobile phone.  Look at the success of the Apple iPhone App Store.  That’s already featuring hundreds of medical and health applications.  The same developers will jump at the prospect of connecting to real monitoring devices.

We don’t yet really know how the personal health device market will evolve.  We’ll only discover that when devices exist and applications developers start to play with them.  It’s important that they see this decision as the starting pistol to develop devices and not as one that makes them sit and wait.

For more information on the consumer medical ecosystem that Bluetooth will enable, download the White Paper:

Download “A Bluetooth Ecosystem for Health and Fitness”

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