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

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.