Bluetooth to Feel Blue as Personal Area Network Battles Loom

1Executive Summary

Our phones already access the Internet, and soon they’ll become a means of connecting the analog world of our heartbeats, steps taken, food eaten, etc. to the digital world of the web. That’s right, the way your wireless headset communicates with your phone, or the way your Nike shoes talk to your iPod, is shaping up to be the next standards fight for chip and device makers.

Driving this trend are factors like the attention now paid to medical apps for phones (the Federal Drug Administration is keeping an eye on them, as is the Federal Communications Commission) and a fixation with personal fitness. At stake is billions of dollars in revenue for radio chips, but also the openness of networks used for activities like medical monitoring or buying a pedometer or glucose monitor that works with both an Apple and an Android handset.

But before smartphones can make the leap as our analog-to-digital converters, they need a means to transmit data from sensors to the phone. That means wireless protocols like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct, ANT and other proprietary flavors of networks will be the players in the big wireless standards war of 2011. This is the year smartphones owners will tip into the majority, and those new users will drive the purchase and creation of medical and fitness apps, while newly adopted standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy start taking their places inside the actual devices.

Here we outline the major players in the space:

Bluetooth Special Interest Group: Bluetooth, which is a specification for sending data over short distances, was declared dead in 2002, only to re-emerge a few years later as the dominant means of connecting headsets to phones. Now it’s also used in a variety of mobile-health applications such as blood pressure and glucose monitors.

Bluetooth has the advantage of already being integrated into most handsets, but its critics claim that it is a battery suck, and different versions of it can be hard to pair across different versions of the technology. A low-power version of Bluetooth (Bluetooth Low Energy) is on its way and will solve some of the battery life issues, says Mike Foley, the head of the Bluetooth SIG, in an interview. However, most devices today don’t have the Bluetooth Low Energy chips (although they contain other iterations of Bluetooth radios), so it will take a few years until those radios are in most consumers’ handsets.

Dynastream Innovations (ANT): Dynastream, a subsidiary of personal-navigation powerhouse Garmin, has created a low-power, short-range wireless technology called ANT. The benefit of ANT is that it consumes much less power than Bluetooth or ZigBee chips, but it’s not yet widely available in handsets. However, at this year’s CES, ANT had some wins with TI, introducing a combined Bluetooth and ANT chip, and Sony Ericsson (admittedly not a big player in the smartphone industry) said it would deploy ANT in its handsets. Other fitness-focused devices such as the Fitbit (see disclosure) also use ANT.

Apple: Apple modified Bluetooth to make it more power-efficient to create its PAN technology, which powers the radio inside the Nike pedometer. It could also end up in other devices designed to attach to Apple gear such as iPads, iPhones and iPods. Apple notes that its proprietary radio technology operates in the 2.4 Ghz band, as does Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ANT and other technologies. In addition to its program with Nike, Apple also has fitness machine makers embedding compatible radios and sensors inside their machines to communicate with iPhones and iPods.

Qualcomm: Qualcomm is developing its own short-distance, low-power data protocol, possibly code-named Peanut, for use in smartphones. Executives have been cagey about answering direct questions on the topic, but Qualcomm has never been shy about building its own radio technologies, and the company has clearly stated that it believes the smartphone is the control point for all information coming to and from people, their homes and their devices. It’s also very focused on delivering technologies that can make smartphones more energy efficient, and so a low-power PAN fits within that rubric.

If Qualcomm can make smartphones more desirable and gain licensing revenue, it wins. But simply keeping smartphones at the hub of its operations, regardless of the fate of Peanut, Qualcomm would likely still win, since the company’s radios and applications processors power those devices. Thus, Qualcomm is vocal about using Wi-Fi, cellular and other radio technologies and just agreed to buy Atheros in order to own a variety of radio technologies that can share data. So even if Peanut matures, Qualcomm will let it play nice with other protocols.

Intel and Ozmo Devices (Wi-Fi PAN):
Intel and Ozmo devices aren’t focused on smartphones at the moment, but more on using their personal area networking technologies based on the Wi-Fi standard to connect computer peripherals. Still, there’s no telling what might happen if Intel can make more inroads in the mobile device market. Currently the power suck from Wi-Fi is prohibitive, which is why Ozmo is trying to make its play with a special chip that takes advantage of the Wi-Fi already in a computer or netbook but uses less power on the connecting device end. This month it introduced its chips inside printers, keyboards and speakers.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (Wi-Fi Direct): For sensor networks that don’t need to connect back to the web, but instead just need to talk to each other, there’s Wi-Fi Direct. This technology is more about trading data between other Wi-Fi Direct enabled devices, but isn’t likely to be a bit hit until Wi-Fi can reduce it’s power draw. However, in hospitals or places where machines could be plugged in or recharged regularly, Wi-Fi Direct presents opportunities for machines to talk directly to one another. The benefit here is that Wi-Fi is already in millions of devices and its easy to connect to.

The ZigBee Alliance (ZigBee): This standard is set by the IEEE, much like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are. Instead of being backed by a single company, it is an open standard used for the most part in home energy networks. However, because of its low-energy usage and eventual ubiquity in home networks, it’s not too far-fetched to think of ways your smartphone might communicate with your appliances or thermostat using a ZigBee radio (although one could agrue that in the home Wi-Fi also works), so I’ll include it as a potential personal area network technology that might make it’s away into a phone. Even if it doesn’t become a contendor, ZigBee does compare with Bluetooth and ANT as a low-power, short-range data transmission technology.

Some of these protocols work with each other as well, and none are mutually exclusive. Which is to say, the future for personal area networks won’t belong to one standard or one company. Most believe that a variety of radios will make the grade simply because radios such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are already a necessity on smartphones. For example, Craig Ochikubo, vice president and general manager for Broadcom’s wireless personal area networking line of business, said in an interview, “We just ran a quick count and found six Androind phones that have ANT, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, so there’s an ever increasing stack of radios and different use cases to get devices on the web.”

That’s great for silicon vendors, and for consumers, because it gives them more variety. However those radios will consume battery power and they do add costs to the devices. But for those making peripheral devices such as heart rate monitors and pedometers to attach to the network, a wide variety of standard radios in unlicensed bands can only be a good thing.

However, all of the networks work over unlicenced spectrum, which means anyone can make radios and operate them; this poses problems with interference and creates security issues. For example, running essential medical equipment over a Wi-Fi network may make it vulnerable to failure or hacking. Companies such as GE and Qualcomm have argued that medical equipment might be better going over licensed spectrum controlled by mobile operators or other entities, since health care is a heavily regulated industry with sensitive amounts of data. However, for the consumer sector, those hanging out in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands are most likely to flourish. Now it remains to be seen which ones will win.

DisclosureFitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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