How much does it cost to produce a wireless standard? And how long does it take? Surprisingly those aren’t questions that are asked very often – probably because most developers are happy to use what already exists rather than starting again from scratch.
In the UK, some members of the smart metering programme have begun asking these questions, potentially for the wrong reasons. They’ve realised that ZigBee – the current front-runner for the UK smart metering deployment, can’t provide the range to cope with every single house or block of flats, and have started wondering about whether it might make sense to start again from scratch.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book on the Essentials of Short Range Wireless I attempted to put some numbers to those questions. It seems an appropriate time to publish them, as the answers are a lot more and a lot longer than most people think.
It’s been an interesting week for the short range wireless standards. The two terrible teenagers, ANT and ZigBee have both shown signs of their growing maturity, starting to position themselves as far more serious contenders in the market place. In the wake of their move from adolescence, a new toddler has emerged in the form of Toumaz, with their announcement of their Telran chip.
What has been missing is any reaction, or in fact much sign of any action from their elder siblings – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. As large manufacturers continue to tighten their belts, one of the less noticed effects has been a steady withdrawal of engineering support from standards organisations. In the past, many of these have been staffed with seconded experts from the big names in industry. Increasingly those big names are withdrawing, relying largely on chip vendors to push their interests within the standards organisations. That’s left Wi-Fi and Bluetooth battling to persuade industry members that either standard has a development future, with certain of their members considering that the job has been done.
Which opens up the field for the former competitors to claim some potentially interesting parts of the market.
Electronica only comes every other year but it’s still the biggest electronics trade show in the world. The last time it ran, Bluetooth low energy was still better known as Wibree. In the intervening two years half a dozen companies have announced chips and the standard has been completed and published. So visitors to Munich last week had the first major opportunity for to see just how much progress has been made.
It’s obvious that the industry has moved from PowerPoint presentations to reality. Chips were on display, along with development boards and the first few modules. In the Forum within Electronica there were sessions on the applications it will enable, and in the adjoining Wireless Congress a full day’s track was devoted to developer training and further applications.
The silicon and tools are definitely here. Now it’s time for developers to add their imagination.
Today the Bluetooth SIG formally adopted the full specification for Bluetooth low energy and made it available for public download. It’s exciting – they’re firing the starting pistol for a new ecosystem of innovative products and applications that will change the way we think about the things around us.
Bluetooth low energy is not just a variant of the existing Bluetooth specification – it’s an entirely new standard that’s been optimised for low power and internet connectivity. It marks a step change in short range wireless, providing a new short range connection for a new decade.
The organisers probably weren’t expecting snow, but it didn’t stop the audience turning up en masse to Mobile Monday’s mHealth meeting in Amsterdam last week. The presentations were far from chilling; mHealth is moving from a position of relative obscurity a year ago, to something that every network operator feels they need to have. Vodafone, AT&T and Telefonica have already declared that it’s a key part of their strategy. The potentially still-born US health reform and accompanying monetary stimulus plans have convinced many more that there’s money to be made from it, and 400 plus attendees were keen to understand where those opportunities may be.
One of the nice things about working in technology is those moments when everything clicks and you go “Wow – that’s neat”. It’s something that happens as you work with many of the different standards and you realise that the collective intelligence of those putting it together really is greater than the sum of the parts.
Over the years I’ve had that Eureka moment with a number of wireless standards. They don’t all have it. Wi-Fi doesn’t – it just does a good job of making Ethernet wireless. GSM has it in the unlikely form of SMS. Kevin Holley, who was probably more responsible for SMS than anyone else, should be given an award for that. ZigBee has it – it’s the moment you realise that within the network you’ve just configured, multiple devices can be having their own, independent wireless conversations at the same time.
Despite years of being involved with Bluetooth, I’ve not found it there. Bluetooth is very impressive in its thoroughness, but again, it’s good, competent specmanship, which does what it says on the box. What Bluetooth has done is to provide a solid base of knowledge for the development of the new Bluetooth low energy standard, which was adopted today. Over the last year I’ve been helping develop the standard and explaining it to designers and engineers around the world. During that process I’ve realised that it doesn’t have just one, but two of those Eureka moments. And it’s been obvious at the conferences I’ve been speaking at, that as soon as developers understand it, they share that excitement. These two features are the ability for a device to talk directly to a web application, and how easy it is to use.