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The areas Wi-Fi Direct can best Bluetooth are on distance and speed: I've written a few articles already about Wi-Fi Direct, the new peer-to-peer mode that the Wi-Fi Alliance is finalizing and which will appear in updated and new hardware in mid-2010. This includes my analysis of why Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct serve related but not entirely overlapping purposes. But in that discussion, I only mentioned speed and distance in passing.
Bluetooth devices come in one of three varieties by signal output: Class 1, 2, or 3. Class 3 devices (1 meter, 1mW) were originally the most common, intended for low-power earpiece-to-phone communication. Class 2 (10 meters, 2.5 mW) became more common, and I believe now predominates. This allows communication within a room and sometimes beyond. Class 1 (100 meters, 100 mW) is rarely found in peripherals, although it's used in computers. The Callpod Dragon V2 headset ($99) is a rare peripheral exception, but the size and price have something to do with its ability to push out that much signal.
Wi-Fi, in contrast, is designed for whole home/whole office coverage, with 802.11n finally achieving that for many venues. Wi-Fi equipment makers used to, and some still do, put out nominal distance numbers, like 100 meters diameter or what have you, but I always thought these numbers were nonsense. Originally, these distances were based on minimal testing in simulations of the real world. Some companies and trade groups have houses that are designed to be testbeds, even.
In practice, 802.11g Wi-Fi was a one to two wall and one, maybe two floor solution. A lot of factors about building materials affected that. 802.11n penetrates far better, and can produce a far clearer signal (and thus higher speeds) through many more obstructions.
For Wi-Fi Direct, where you want to be able to peer easily to devices around you without fuss, the distance and penetration issues may be one important component of why people may turn to use that mode rather than Bluetooth. It's possible that some operating system makers or third-party software developers will make it simple for Wi-Fi Direct to become an ad hoc Internet access mode, bypassing the need for guest networks in access points, for instance.
Speed will also be a component depending on the uses to which Wi-Fi Direct is put, and how OS makers and device makers incorporate the mode. If Apple lets me use Wi-Fi Direct on an iPhone to transfer data from an Apple TV or a Mac or Windows system with iTunes installed (say, as an extension of the firm's new Home Sharing feature in iTunes), then I will surely want the 50 to 150 Mbps available with Wi-Fi Direct instead of the 2 Mbps of throughput from Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.
This draws me back to the application and profile issue I discussed in the previous article on Bluetooth competition. The usage Wi-Fi Direct beyond simple file transfer and Internet access and printing will depend heavily on having layers of functionality (tasks and purposes) put on top of connectivity.
Wi-Fi Direct is both parallel to and complementary of Bluetooth. Discuss: Today's announcement of Wi-Fi Direct, a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi transfer method, might seem to be firing across Bluetooth's bow. But it isn't quite. Intel's My WiFi is a much more direct threat, and even then may not materialize in quite the way that's being predicted. (Read my coverage, "Wi-Fi Alliance Peers into the Future with Ad Hoc Replacement.")
To review, Bluetooth is a PAN (personal area networking) technology in which devices under the control of the same person or computer communicate over short ranges and relatively low speeds. Bluetooth can create peer-to-peer connections or piconet networks, which comprise a host and up to seven clients. In a very standard configuration, a cell phone might use Bluetooth to communicate with a laptop, sharing its 3G mobile broadband connection, while at the same time a Bluetooth earpiece is paired with the phone to handle audio.
Bluetooth requires a pairing process, in which devices authenticate to each other and agree through a handshake (with optional encryption) to talk to one another. The SIG, device makers, and desktop and mobile OS developers have done a great job of simplifying this process down to typically entering a PIN--one of several options with the current security system, Secure Simple Pairing--instead of having 20 to 25 steps as it used to be.
Bluetooth's current release (2.1+HDR [high data rate]) encompasses a wireless spec for 3 Mbps data transfer (raw) using the 2.4 GHz band. The spec also includes application-layer elements, which are called profiles, and which define a large array of end-to-end tasks, like printing, file transfer, or acting as a modem. This allows any manufacturer to make a Bluetooth keyboard that talks the HID (human interface device) profile, and which is tested and certified as such, to talk to any other Bluetooth device with the HID profile.
The Bluetooth SIG, which maintains and develops the spec, isn't tied to its physical medium. It's tried to partner with other specs in process to extend itself, notably tying its cart at one point to both major ultrawideband (UWB) encodings, and then picking WiMedia, which was the "winner" in UWB. WiMedia disbanded, but handed off the Bluetooth component to the SIG; there may still be life in it. (Originally, Intel et al. wanted to stick one UWB radio in computers and devices, but have many different protocols run over that radio, such as Bluetooth, TCP/IP, Wireless USB, and video. UWB is currently shipping only as an instantiation of Wireless USB.)
While UWB fiddled and burned, however, the SIG worked on Bluetooth 3.0+HS (High Speed), which incorporates a high-speed transfer mode that allows a Bluetooth device to coordinate with a peer switching to use 802.11 for a bulk transfer, useful for large files or high-speed video streaming. The session is still within the structure of a Bluetooth PAN, and the use of 802.11 is entirely under the control of the Bluetooth session. The devices don't suddenly become ad hoc nodes or soft access points. Note the use of 802.11: this is a particular use of that protocol outside of any current Wi-Fi spec.
Wi-Fi Direct is an outgrowth of the interest by Intel and others in reducing the number of radio technologies and the level of complexity in devices, which can correspondingly reduce battery usage, while also developing a spec that's to their liking. Intel has a board seat on the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Bluetooth SIG, but still enjoys charting its own course.
Wi-Fi Direct is a peer-to-peer technology, at least the way it's being described initially. Wi-Fi devices that have services to offer (like printing, file sharing, etc.) can advertise those in a way that other equipped devices can access directly. This new method offers the speed and security of an infrastructure Wi-Fi network with an access point at the center without the overhead of joining such a network or making such networks public to allow access to specific resources. That is, someone can print to your printer without you giving them a key to your network. Wi-Fi Direct is built on top of 802.11n, so it can work in both 2.4 and 5 GHz, too.
The simplicity of Wi-Fi Direct is supposed to aid in devices without keyboards or easy data entry methods, much as Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) was supposed to offer a one-click secure connection. With a peer-to-peer approach, a camcorder could hook up with a laptop to transfer data directly without you needing to enter a WPA2 Personal passphrase or even connect at all to an existing Wi-Fi network.
Beyond speed and security, Wi-Fi Direct will allow an adapter to be scanning and accessing peers while also maintaining a full infrastructure connection to a network. It's this feature that allows devices to ostensibly cut the Bluetooth "cord," although I'm still dubious about that as a general element, as I'll explain.
The My WiFi technology that Intel developed (apparently at least in part with Ozmo Devices) emphasizes more of the PAN aspect, talking about having eight devices associated with a laptop, for instance.
So, the question at the outset was whether Wi-Fi Direct is a competitor to Bluetooth?
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct definitely compete head to head on trying to make the simplest network connection between two devices for a variety of straightforward purposes.
However, Wi-Fi Direct won't be backward compatible to the hundreds of millions of devices on the market that already have Bluetooth 1.x or 2.x. Bluetooth's later flavors (2.x and 3.x) are backwards compatible with those older devices.
And while Wi-Fi with a PAN mode could reduce circuit counts, most Wi-Fi chips that are being sold in the mobile market, and I believe in the desktop/laptop market, are integrated Bluetooth/Wi-Fi modules that often throw in other radios and circuitry as well.
Wi-Fi may eventually be appropriate to build into keyboards, mice, wireless headsets, earpieces, and other low-battery peripherals, but that's not really the case today. Bluetooth dominates there in hundreds of millions of installed devices.
Bluetooth's profiles also seem like an advantage to me. Kelly Davis-Felner, the Wi-Fi Alliance's marketing director, said that Wi-Fi Direct would not have application or task overlays, but would be focused on the networking and communication level, as with other Wi-Fi certifications.
Which means that if I connect my mobile phone with my computer to transfer music over, I still need an application on both sides that handles the file transfer. With Bluetooth, the profiles still need an interface on top, but a universally supported file-transfer method already exists. I can use a Bluetooth program under Windows and on the Mac and within various mobile phones to transfer files today.
If I want a method that synchronizes stored files and handles it automatically, then OS makers or third-party developers still do have to build an application on top of that. But with Bluetooth, they can rely on leveraging a well-supported mechanism. It's asymmetric, in that a desktop OS program for syncing MP3 files or photos doesn't require a corresponding program to be installed on a mobile phone that allows access to its storage via the Bluetooth profile.
Now, of course, I'm being a little disingenuous about profiles, because Wi-Fi Direct will create an IP-based network between the two parties, allowing existing service discovery methods to work just as they do over a wireless LAN today--including Apple's Bonjour and whatever the current name of Microsoft's technology. But none of these methods are supported across gadgets (like cameras). mobile operating systems, and desktop/laptop operating system platforms. That's going to be the challenge for Wi-Fi Direct.
In the end, I certainly see Wi-Fi Direct as provoking additional industry efforts to figure out precisely what's useful about PANs and sell those capabilities to consumers as solutions for frustration or a way to accomplish tasks they're unaware they need to accomplish.
The best thing about Wi-Fi Direct is that it enables a secure, high-speed ad hoc mode that will actually work among different devices, something that's long been needed.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wi-Fi Direct is that it could be used with Bluetooth, since many manufacturers participate actively in the Bluetooth SIG and Wi-Fi Alliance. Beyond Bluetooth 3.0+HS, there could be a convergence path for hand-in-hand networking, playing to each standard's strengths.
Strong peer-to-peer mode added to Wi-Fi portfolio: The Wi-Fi Alliance has announced Wi-Fi Direct, a peer-to-peer wireless networking method that takes the group into a new realm of creating specifications de novo, instead of following IEEE groups. The spec will appear in hardware by mid-2010.
Wi-Fi Direct will allow any device to advertise itself as a combination of software access point and peer. Newer hardware--which will include some existing equipment with firmware upgrades--will be able to maintain a wireless LAN connection to a so-called infrastructure network (via an access point), while also creating a peer-to-peer link to a device like a printer, mouse or keyboard, computer, or handheld. This could be used for file transfers, printing, input, and synchronization, among other purposes.
The spec is backwards compatible with 802.11a and 802.11g, which will see the peering device as a software access point, if I understand that detail correctly.
Wi-Fi Direct will include mechanisms for advertising service availability without connecting, something like the Apple Bonjour method known generically as Zeroconf that uses DNS records to broadcast specific services over a LAN.
The new method is a wholesale replacement of the weak ad hoc networking mode that's part of 802.11, but never built out into a standardized, certified part of Wi-Fi. Ad hoc networks allow devices to exchange data with each other without an access point, but implementations almost universally offer poor security and degraded throughput.
Distinct from ad hoc networks are software access points, which mimic all the functionality of an infrastructure network, and must be operated in a continuous fashion on a computer.
The Wi-Fi Direct mode will not suffer from weaknesses of either type of quasi peer-to-peer methods, and will be rigidly tested for interoperability among devices. Kelly Davis-Felner, the alliance's marketing director, said in an interview that Wi-Fi Direct can preserve the full bandwidth of 802.11n, as well as use WPA2 encryption and WPS (Wi-Fi Protection Setup) secure key handling.
Davis-Felner also said that while the spec has a lot of consumer electronics and home user advantages, enterprise management was baked in as well. The spec requires "Wi-Fi Direct networks to be seen by enterprise APs, and, potentially to be shut down by them" to prevent rogue networks that violate policy, she said. The spec also includes optional mechanisms that allow enterprise access points to suggest channel assignments and power management choices. The spec was designed to be an "enterprise-acceptable solution," Davis-Felner said.
The alliance has pulled together support from many non-standardized PAN/WLAN hybrid modes that have been under development, most notably the Intel My WiFi personal area networking (PAN) extension of 802.11. Intel said via email that Wi-Fi Direct would be incorporated into Intel My WiFi, which has additional capabilities. (My WiFi supports up to eight devices in a PAN configuration, much like Bluetooth.)
Chipmaker Atheros also offers its Direct Connect mode (in addition to a soft access point feature), which it said via email can converge into Wi-Fi Direct. (Oddly, Atheros has no plain product briefing page on this mode.) Marvell has a similar hotspot-on-a-chip offering, and plans Wi-Fi Direct support.
"This has been by far one of the most dynamic and heavily participated in groups that we've had in the Alliance," Davis-Felner said.
Wi-Fi Direct is a bit of a departure for the Wi-Fi Alliance, which typically develops a set of parameters from IEEE standards that a Wi-Fi-compliant device should support, and then builds interoperability testing and certification around those parameters.
With the initial release of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), the Wi-Fi Alliance reacted to the interminable delays at the 802.11i security task group by splitting the backwards-compatible components from all the future-looking elements. WPA was based on an interim 802.11i draft, but ultimately was updated to WPA2 to incorporate the final work of the group.
Here, the alliance isn't following the IEEE, which has no PAN/WLAN convergence group, but maintains separate WLAN (802.11) and PAN (802.15) efforts. The 802.15 group has famously suffered from mid-stream shifts in technology approaches and the disbanding of 802.15.3b (high-speed PAN using UWB).
Wi-Fi Direct could be seen as a challenge to Bluetooth, given that Bluetooth is designed entirely as a PAN, and has a specification that will soon see light that allows Bluetooth to trigger an 802.11-compatible bulk-transfer mode for large files at faster rates. Bluetooth had paired itself with UWB as its next-generation wireless medium, but generic UWB radios never reached market, although there's still some potential.
The Bluetooth SIG has approved its 3.0 spec with a 21 April launch date: I've written before about Bluetooth 3.0, which pairs the 3 Mbps low-power frequency hopping radio system of 2.1+EDR with high-speed transfers via 802.11 standards. The idea is that a properly integrated Bluetooth 3.0 system will have a bulk-transfer mode that two devices can swap into. (Note that the SIG is referencing 802.11, the generic standard, as it doesn't have a specific program in place with the Wi-Fi Alliance--yet?--for cross-certifiation.)
For instance, if you had one of those ubiquitous BlackBerry or iPhone smartphones with Bluetooth 3.0 and Wi-Fi inside, you could start a sync session with your PC. For normal calendar data and other matter, the sync would use the Bluetooth radio system. To sync a large music or video file, the handset's BT gear would talk with the computer's, agree to switch to 802.11, and then make the bulk transfer. At the end, communication would return to the other radio.
This mode works in a quasi ad-hoc fashion, without requiring that a device join a Wi-Fi network, which is part of why the 802.11 label is being used. With the collapse of UWB as a near-term generic option for personal area networking (PAN)--it may wind up being important, but it's not right now--802.11 standards will likely morph into WLAN/PAN systems. Intel has been working on this for a while, disclosing its Cliffside project a year ago as part of a larger effort to rethink mobile device functions.
Bluetooth 3.0 will get its formal unveiling later this month along with information about which chipmakers have products ready to sample. Because the SIG is a practical group, standards aren't released until there are multiple vendors with interoperable prototype chips and hardware.
An Intel-backed startup, Ozmo, plans low-power Wi-Fi protocol modification to compete with Bluetooth technology: Ozmo has developed chips for wireless peripherals like headphones, headsets, and handhelds (the three H's?) as well as mice and keyboards that pair with special driver software for computers to enable a 9 Mbps Wi-Fi-based PAN (personal area network) at the same time a computer is connected via Wi-Fi to a wireless LAN (local area network).
Ozmo apparently is trying to leverage the ubiquity of Wi-Fi, the market reach of Intel (which has invested in the firm and is pushing its technology), and the dissatisfaction with Bluetooth device association and throughput to stick a wedge into Bluetooth's market domination. Well over a billion Bluetooth chipsets have shipped--CSR alone has shipped over a billion--and estimates put half a billion this year into cell phones alone. So there's a large embedded market to overcome.
This new technology, so far unnamed but apparently part of Intel's Cliffside research program, is trying to reduce complexity by reducing the number of standards needed to drive a computer, while increasing the flexibility of those standards. Ozmo and Intel's system would, for instance, allow a simultaneous WLAN connection and a PAN network of up to 8 devices using a single radio on a computer.
The press releases and articles make it quite unclear whether a new Wi-Fi chip would be needed; that chip would almost certainly not conform to today's Wi-Fi standards except in a compatibility mode, given that Wi-Fi has no capacity for PAN-style connections. Ad hoc mode isn't quite the same thing. In the past, extensions to the 802.11 standards that are the basis of the Wi-Fi certification and service mark were allowed as long as basic 802.11 worked as expected.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have been complementary technologies for several years. There were early conflicts--I wrote an article about the severe problems in using Bluetooth 1.1 and 802.11b back in 2001! But those interference and coordination issues were resolved, and Blueooth and Wi-Fi marched forward hand in hand, without any close association between the two trade groups behind the standards and branding, but with a lot of technology acquisitions and mergers on the part of companies that make Wi-Fi gear.
The Bluetooth SIG has been working for years to put Bluetooth on top of ultrawideband (UWB), which is still not readily available in the marketplace. UWB is always next year's big technology, and may be passed by except for applications like high-definition video streaming among a/v electronics. The SIG also announced support in Oct. 2007 for Bluetooth + 802.11, where a Bluetooth device could initiate high-speed transfers using 802.11 (yes, Wi-Fi, but not by that name; no partnership there). Bluetooth plus UWB is likely not available until 2009 at this point; BT and Wi-Fi, not until perhaps 2010. (See my article, "Bluetooth to Add Wi-Fi with UWB Delays in Mind," 2007-10-31.)
It's hard to see how Ozmo builds a place in this infrastructure, even with higher bandwidth, and what Ozmo says is lower power use and a lower cost for their chips, because laptop and desktop makers will need to buy into the Intel/Ozmo ecosystem. The demand for this kind of technology is typically driven by users who buy one component and need their computer to interface with it.
With Ozmo and Intel apparently planning to debut the Wi-Fi chips and driver support next year, it seems like a multi-year process to figure out whether Ozmo can evolve a competitive position to Bluetooth, even as Bluetooth is estimated to be embedded in over 1.2b cell phones by 2012.
The Bluetooth SIG says a 2009 standard will integrate Bluetooth and 802.11 in a tighter, more complementary relationship: The group that controls the Bluetooth standard continues the evolution towards agnosticism about underlying radio stuff. The latest move takes advantage of the side-by-side deployment of the "winning" wireless specifications: Bluetooth for PAN (Personal Area Networks) and Wi-Fi for WLAN (Wireless Local Area Networks). Bigger files will automatically be sent over Wi-Fi. Sounds simple, no?
"Bluetooth is great right now for sending some of these less bulky data files," said senior marketing manager Kevin Keating, but with the "bulk transfer of entertainment data, whether it's piles of MP3s or a bunch of vacation photos you want to move off your cameras or on your PC, it's not really built for that."
The SIG made this announcement this afternoon at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona; Bluetooth is built into hundreds of millions of cell phones worldwide in its current form, and is near two billion devices shipped in all form factors. That number went from 1 to 2 billion in about two years.
The new standard, called Bluetooth High Speed, will allow a Bluetooth adapter and drivers to identify bulk transfers and move them from the lower-powered and slower Bluetooth radio technology to more battery intensive, but faster 802.11.
They're really talking about 802.11 and Wi-Fi nearly interchangably, but this standard doesn't yet have any formal involvement from the SIG's counterpart, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which controls the certification process for Wi-Fi and the trademark. Keating said, "Wi-Fi is its own brand, and we've talked."
It's important to remember that Bluetooth is both a set of profiles that define behavior--applications and schemas for data in those applications--and a radio standard. Bluetooth was originally developed with its own communications spec (the MAC and PHY, in technical terms) that worked at 1 Mbps; the 2.0+EDR and 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) bumped that to 3 Mbps. (Version 2.1 also dramatically simplifies pairing between devices; it's rolling out widely now.)
These profiles include things like HID (Human Interface Device) for keyboards and input devices, DNP for dial-up networking, GOEP (Generic Object Exchange Profile) for file transfer, and so forth. The profiles are at a layer of abstraction above the interface and radio part, which makes it relatively simple to repurpose them across many radio standards.
In that vein, the Bluetooth SIG has already disclosed plans for its support for ultrawideband (UWB), whenever PCs with UWB or adapters start appearing in great provision, and their own ultra low power version of Bluetooth for things like heart-rate monitor, bike cyclometers sensors, and other low-data-rate devices.
The Bluetooth SIG says prototypes using the high-speed standard will be tested this year, with a published spec due in mid-2009, and devices presumably long before the end of 2009.
The Bluetooth SIG will create a version that runs over Wi-Fi: Bluetooth comprises applications and radio standards. The applications include standard profiles that developers use to add features like keyboard and input device access, file transfer, and dial-up networking. The Bluetooth SIG has a long-range plan to keep Bluetooth relevant by essentially adding more radio technologies underneath, not just the 1 Mbps version found in Bluetooth 1.x and the 3 Mbps version in the Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) part of 2.x+EDR.
Ultrawideband (UWB) was one of the preferred newer radio standards, something they decided on supporting in March 2006, because UWB seemed to be near term at that point, and was part of the original migration path for personal area networking in the IEEE 802.16 group that Bluetooth has some coordination with. (UWB was to be the radio standard for 802.16.3a until the group disbanded over friction caused by a now-dropped original flavor of UWB from what is now Motorola spin-off Freescale.) UWB is low-power and low-range, making it ideal.
But it's hardly on the market yet and is way too expensive. This pushes back Bluetooth over UWB in handsets to something like 2009. TechWorld notes that UWB vendors say that UWB handsets will be on the market (in Asia) within six months. Of course, UWB chipmakers and manufacturers have been telling me since 2006 that UWB products will be shipping in a few months. They weren't lying; complications ensued. I accept that. But I'm now Missouri as regards UWB in shipping hardware.
As a result, TechWorld reports, the SIG's chair, ironically a Motorola employee, said that they would focus on building Bluetooth over Wi-Fi. Details aren't available, and one UWB vendor says that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are incompatible due to security models.
The Bluetooth SIG's board of directors approved 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate): The revision of the short-range personal area networking standard will reduce power consumption and greatly ease pairing, the association between two Bluetooth devices. The changes can be applied to 2.0+EDR devices via firmware, the Bluetooth SIG told me, but many Bluetooth modules are now in devices that lack firmware upgrade ability. So computers, yes; phones, many; picture frames, perhaps not so much.
Pairing has been dramatically improved by reducing the number of steps and the complexity. For devices that require a passcode entry, version 2.1+EDR requires that one device in the paired set generates a six-digit PIN that is then entered in the other device. And you're done. (Apple created their own version of this years ago, but it worked only when devices were discoverable and paired by Mac OS X to a computer, and it was far less secure than the 2.1+EDR version.)
The PIN is generated, by the way, using an Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman algorithm, which avoids man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks by using an out-of-band method to confirm a key exchange. In this case, the two Bluetooth 2.1+EDR devices generate and exchange their ECDH keys, and then one device generates a six-digit PIN which is part of a hash of the session key being used by the two devices. While an MitM can talk to both parties, they can't know that six-digit PIN.
The improvement in power usage is rather significant: the SIG reports a fivefold improvement in battery life by intermittently connected devices like sensors, and input devices that send very little actual information, like keyboards and mouses.
The Bluetooth SIG will incorporate Nokia's wearable Wibree technology into its portfolio: Nokia sparked some interest when it unveiled Wibree last year because of the niche it filled: wireless technology with miserly power use that could fit in a tiny form factor, like wearable items. But there were also groans. With Bluetooth, ultrawideband, Wi-Fi, WiMax, and ZigBee already extant--not another technology standard, please!
Fortunately, Nokia is contributing Wibree to the Bluetooth SIG, and the Wibree Forum (which includes Broadcom and other firms) will become part of the fold, too. Contributing is the operative word: Nokia will allow the use of Wibree royalty free. Bluetooth itself was turned into a royalty-free offering to push its adoption.
Wibree-based products will be marketed as ultra-low-power Bluetooth, and have a goal of a year's battery life, 10-meter range, and 1 Mbps throughput. Current Bluetooth products have no battery-life target that I'm aware of, and can operate at ranges of 10 meters (Class 2) or 100 meters (Class 1), and up to 3 Mbps with Bluetooth 2.0+HDR (high data rate). Existing Bluetooth devices won't talk to Wibree equipment, but future Bluetooth standards can incorporate that ability, as Wibree uses 2.4 GHz frequency hopping radios.
This might seem to put the Bluetooth SIG in competition with the ZigBee Alliance, which products products that use the IEEE 802.15.4 standard for low-power, long-battery-life, short-range, low-speed wireless communication. (By the way, IEEE 802.15.1 is a subset of Bluetooth.) ZigBee, however, is focused on devices in the home and office like alarm and fire sensors, A/V equipment (like a TV remote control), and "white" appliances like refrigerators that might have something to say to its owner. Wibree's intent is centered around small, mobile devices where Bluetooth might be too bulky or power-intensive. We'll see if worlds collide.
Part of the Bluetooth SIG's real genius in recent years--and, yes, its director Mike Foley deserves to be credited--is embrace, adopt, extend. Bluetooth was clearly on a path to obsolescence with its specific radio technology, even as developers and hardware manufacturers continued to cram Bluetooth into everything mobile. It didn't have a good roadmap with a single offering with incremental improvements--like moving from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps.
What's critical to know about Bluetooth is that it's a pile of specific application-layer tasks (which they call "profiles") combined with underlying radio technology. The radio technology is, frankly, irrelevant except insofar as the original and current Bluetooth standards codified a common way of exchanging low-speed data wirelessly. That's great, but there are a lot of methods, and there's nothing particularly special or important about Bluetooth's RF.
Rather, the value is in the profiles, like file transfer, printing, hands-free access, and dial-up networking. These profiles are abstracted from the radio, which means that programmers never have to think about the RF properties of the device in order to use profiles. (They might think about efficiency for bandwidth and battery usage, but not about radio-wave propagation.)
This has allowed the Bluetooth SIG to embrace ultrawideband (UWB) and Wibree without compromising its existing set of products or alienating developers. In fact, it's a boon to all electronics makers: a handset or smartphone maker could add or switch to UWB from the Bluetooth RF standard without losing Bluetooth's capabilities. (UWB is always next year's technology. Late last year, it looked like 2007 was going to be the year. But we're still waiting for the first real UWB products to hit the marketplace.)
The Bluetooth SIG unveiled its 2.1 spec today: Ephraim Schwartz of InfoWorld gave a preview 10 days ago, and the wraps were taken off at the cell industry trade show CTIA today. Bluetooth 2.1 makes pairing two devices a snap. Power usage has been taken down several notches, too, allowing five times the battery life for devices that don't send continuous data, such as mice, keyboards, watches, sensors, and "medical devices," the SIG says.
As a 2.1 spec, one hopes that some devices will upgradable to support new pairing. There was no announcement as to whether manufacturers were planning upgrades. Conceivably, most of the changes are at the application layer, and existing silicon could support the process using existing circuits, or by offloading elements to the operating system driver. The lower-power mode sounds like a protocol change that could be handled in a firmware upgrade, except that the devices likely to benefit from it also are likely to have no rewritable memory nor an interface by which to update their firmware.
I haven't seen a demonstration yet, but I'm familiar with the methods by which Bluetooth pairing has been simplified. In the past, pairing two devices meant navigating down several menus or depressing buttons, and then inventing a code on one device and entering it on the other, or finding the code that was embedded in the device by default. It could take as many as 14 steps with some sets of devices to pair them.
The new method is much simpler. You'll push a button on a headless Bluetooth device, and then choose Add Bluetooth Device or a similar simple item from a top-level entry on a phone, computer, or handheld. You're done. If you need security, such as pairing two computers, you'll push one computer into pairing mode, and enter a code that computer generates into an interface on the other machine. And you're done.
And you beat the man-in-the-middle attack. The new system creates a strong passkey, so you don't have to invent a PIN, and the out-of-band display of the passkey on the initiating device allows confirmation of the integrity of the encrypted connection. (Apple had its own version of this with a PIN: when pairing, Mac OS X generates a random PIN you enter in the paired device.)
It's so simple, you wish that they had developed this, say, four years ago. But times change, and ideas evolve. Nobody invented Bluetooth pairing to make life hard. And engineers don't think that 14 well-documented steps are a bar to use.
The new Bluetooth 2.1 methods are rather similar to a couple of modes in Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), with some differences in implementation, but the same ease of use. (I've tested WPS with the new 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station and a properly equipped Mac with an N adapter. Lovely, simple, fast--and very secure.)
Bluetooth 2.1 also supports near-field communication (NFC) as an option, where you hold two devices close to each other when engaged in the pairing process. NFC isn't available on a widespread basis yet, but there's a lot of interest in it.
Good news from the simplicity front: The Bluetooth SIG told InfoWorld's Ephraim Schwartz that the 2.1 update to the standard that would appear later this year would automate parts of the pairing process to reduce hooking up two devices down to perhaps 2 to 3 steps.
In writing about Bluetooth, I've always been stunned by how many steps are necessary to create a connection, even in ideal circumstances. The Wi-Fi Alliance learned from this, and their Wi-Fi Protected Setup--a kind of pairing for simple WPA security--involves as few as two steps on a base station and one on a computer trying to associate to form an encrypted pairing.
The new 2.1+EDR spec also uses as little as 20 percent as much power through better sleep modes. Schwartz writes the spec should ship to device manufacturers in two months, but I wonder if he means that chipmakers will have implemented versions that can be integrated in devices in two months?
The chipmaker CSR wants to preserve existing Bluetooth business by offering GPS as a cheap, incremental improvement: CSR says that it will cost about $1 to add a GPS receiver in a combined Bluetooth/GPS chip, and that the chip--make possible by its acquisition of two GPS firms--will have far higher sensitivity than other chips on the market. E911 service in the US requires some kind of automated location service be embedded in phones. As location services are now being sold by carriers based on their cheap, embedded GPS receivers, CSR may have a market in providing better positioning, a lower bill-of-goods, and better battery life.
First Wi-Fi, now Bluetooth: On the heels of Australian technology agency CSIRO winning a key patent suit against Buffalo Technology over the use of very specific elements of newer Wi-Fi standards, the University of Washington's patent-licensing arm has sued four electronics makers that incorporate Bluetooth chips made by CSR into their products: Nokia, Samsung, and both Matsushita and its subsidiary Panasonic of North America. The Washington Research Foundation has patents created by an undergraduate and assigned to the school that the WRF claims are infringed by CSR chips. WRF has a licensing agreement in place with CSR's competitor, Broadcom.
CSR stated today that the claims are without merit. One article says that WRF sued customers because CSR sells chips worldwide, but the customers deliver products specific to the US market that incorporate CSR chips.
The patents were apparently developed in the mid-1990s, according to The Seattle Times, but one of the patents in dispute was not filed until 2003; it was granted in Oct. 2006. The Bluetooth SIG's members agreed to cross-license technology, but WRF is outside that process.
The cell-phone tech giant buys early MIMO company: Airgo was a pioneer in commercializing multiple-antenna (multiple-in/multiple-out or MIMO) technology for the mass market. While one might quibble with some of the particulars of their marketing or their confidence in their precise technology decisions, there's no question that they were the first to market with Wi-Fi plus MIMO, that they helped set the direction of the industry towards MIMO, and that they continue to be a significant player--although that significance was in danger of being challenged by the success of MIMO as a component in wireless data networking.
Their acquisition by Qualcomm ensures their future relevance. Qualcomm says they'll continue to support Airgo's lines of business, but will also integrate their Wi-Fi technology into the Mobile Station Modem chipsets and Snapdragon platform, both of which are designed to give Qualcomm a full place at the converged "table," in which cellular data is one of multiple options for connectivity.
MIMO makes it possible to carry more data over the same frequencies through reuse of those frequencies across space (spatial multiplexing), while also increasing receive sensitivity and transmission clarity, resulting in greater effective area covered by a transceiver.
A related announcement made my head spin. Airgo is claiming the availability of 802.11n Draft 2.0 chipsets that are fully backward compatibility with Draft 1.0 features, and 802.11a/b/g. Now this is hard to swallow given that Draft 2.0 won't be actually voted on until March 2007. In fact, the latest notes from the November meeting of Task Group N--the group responsible for the drafts--explains that 370 technical comments are left to address (88 percent have been gone through) with expected approval on the resolution of those comments by the January meeting. Only by that happening would a ballot be created that could then be approved for the March 2007.
So I have to ask--what kind of crack is Airgo/Qualcomm smoking, and how do I get me some? I'd love to be able to exist simultaneously four months in the future and today; it would make investing much easier. This announcement from a company that denounced Draft 1.0 chip releases is especially rich.
I expect we will get all kinds of qualifications from Qualcomm, and all kinds of denunciations from competing chipmakers. What they will certainly claim is something like, "Based on our expectations of how the final 370 comments will be addressed, we currently comply with the state of Draft 2.0 in progress." That is, they will claim compliance with a DRAFT OF A DRAFT and state that with a straight face. This is why I am not in marketing.
Update on 2.0: In email with an Airgo spokesperson, the company stated that the chips will include all possible iterations of ideas still under discussion and incorporate everything that could possibly be in 2.0. This is probably true. But there's a great difference between "we anticipate Draft 2.0" and "we're Draft 2.0 compliant," which is logically and linguistically impossible. Airgo's CEO--newly minted VP of wireless connectivity at Qualcomm--Greg Raleigh told Wi-Fi Planet: " 'We've had a year of debate and negotiation in the IEEE,' says Raleigh. In that time, lots of features have been introduced as possibilities for 802.11n and Airgo plans to support just about everything that’s come up. In fact, he says Airgo argued to include most of them while some other vendors argued to have features taken out."
It's still specious to call their new chips Draft 2.0 compliant.
Another update: TechWorld talked to someone at Qualcomm who said that "availability" doesn't mean that chips are available. "With no possibility of a Draft 2.0 design until after then, Qualcomm vice president Enrico Salvatori admitted to us that the Draft 2.0 silicon was not actually "available" was planned for sample quantities in the second half of 2007."
Airgo, by the way, has a pile of patents, and while I haven't heard boo so far about them attempting to enforce these in any fashion--and as a participant in IEEE, they've had to agree to certain licensing terms--I expect Qualcomm to follow its usual aggressive strategy. Which means bloody noses, lawsuits, and so on. Qualcomm is in the midst of being sued by and suing a variety of competitors, involving patents that parties claim other parties have used without permission and the cost of patent royalties.
Qualcomm announced another purchase today, too. The deal is described as Qualcomm acquiring the "majority of RF Micro Devices' Bluetooth assets," which is a little difficult to parse, but ostensibly means patents, processes, licenses, and inventories.
For a failed technology, it's looking pretty good: Weekly unit shipments are 12m in devices; in 2010, they have a goal of shipping two billion units--in that year. Bluetooth 2.0+EDR solved a lot of frustration with throughput, range, and co-existance, making a better audio experience possible. The future of Bluetooth is now tied to UWB, and it's a year until we'll see the fruits of that collaboration. With Bluetooth over UWB, the same applications will be available with little effort on the part of developers to make them work with a different radio set.
I love the smell of Bakelite in the morning: The fine people at ThinkGeek have taken their USB-corded retro handset and cut the cord. This Bluetooth handset has the charm of the old AT&T telephones, with the flexibility of Bluetooth. For $40, it's an easy sell for the stylish and those that like that full-sized effect. (They continue to sell their USB-only version for $30; this Bluetooth version includes a USB connector for charging.) [link via Gizmodo]
The Bluetooth SIG announces a kind of Web clipping service: The new TransSend feature will let you click an icon next to a chunk of information on a Web page--like an address, map, contact, or arbitrary text--and have that pushed to any Bluetooth device in range. There's no retrofit needed for the Bluetooth phone or mobile device, as the transfers use an existing Bluetooth profile and formats. But you will need to install software on the computer; only Windows XP SP2 and Windows 2000 are supported at first, and only with IE 5.5 or later. Other platforms and browsers are "under consideration."
The software allows any arbitrary selection to be clipped by using a right-click menu that appears in the browser after selection. However, Web developers can update their pages with appropriate tags to identify TransSend regions, which will be a cinch for directories, mapping companies, and other services that specialize in this sort of information.
Peter Judge writes a UWB Soap three-parter: It's daytime theater on the air as Judge presents the views of Freescale, the Bluetooth SIG, and the WiMedia Alliance on the future of UWB and Bluetooth. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll consult stock market reports.
Part one covers the views of Martin Rofheart, a pioneer of UWB and head of Freescale's wireless efforts, but whose particular flavor appears marginalized and sidelined to my eyes. Freescale's UWB technology was dropped by Bluetooth and Freescale and former parent Motorola left the trade group they helped form. While promising shipping silicon for years, Freescale now seems poised to deliver it at last this July--but only running at 110 Mbps, not the promised 480 Mbps speed sought for the last couple of years. Rofheart makes a lot of claims for how his competition's version of UWB is further behind and less capable. Freescale plans to deliver Cable Free USB, which will work seamlessly through dongles and hubs with existing USB 2.0 connections and devices.
Part two looks into whether Bluetooth has a future given recent developments. Judge notes that Freescale's Rofheart believes Bluetooth over UWB will be late to market and have a restricted worldwide appeal due to choices about spectrum. Will no-wire USB simply take the day? Hard to say, although there's a lot of good technical detail here to absorb. Fundamentally, Bluetooth is about applications running over a radio, while USB is about connectivity. For companies already invested in Bluetooth, adding UWB as a radio option should involve less effort than retooling around USB. Although USB is commonly used for phone synchronization, too. It should prove entertaining.
Part three has the WiMedia Alliance chiming in with their upcoming delivery dates and refuting much of what Rofheart says. (There's no rebuttal from Freescale yet, but part three just posted.) The WiMedia Alliance says that Certified Wireless USB will provide better throughput than Freescale's Cable Free USB by a long shot, and that a single radio for future application and connectivity standards for short-range networks is the right way to go.
The soap opera won't reach its conclusion until products ship. Stay tuned.
Texas Instruments introduces a Bluetooth chip that rocks, dude! Its BlueLink 6.0 platform couples FM radio reception (mono and stereo) with Bluetooth in a single chip. This module also co-exists neatly with Wi-Fi. The notion is that a handset could be an FM tuner without additional chips or integration; this feature must be a top request as music players are added into phones. One analyst predicts 400m units with FM reception by the end of the decade.
Of course, if I put on my other hat, I know that HD Radio, a digitally encoded form of AM and FM radio, has begun making headway in the market. HD Radio uses unused guard bands around the primary analog frequencies to deliver crisp, even multi-channel audio. It makes a lot of sense in about two years to have HD Radio-only AM and FM tuners in handsets. About 700 stations broadcast HD Radio today and only a few car receivers, one high-end home receiver, and one tabletop radio can tune in these broadcasts. A few thousand stations will have added HD by 2007.
The platform works with all common cell phone standards (2G through 3G), as well as Linux, Microsoft, and Symbian operating systems. The chips in two modules are in sampling with devices expected in early 2007 based on the technology.
The group that controls Bluetooth's evolution decided to favor the WiMedia Alliance's flavor of ultrawideband (UWB): UWB offers speeds of 110 Mbps to 480 Mbps over distances of 10 down to 1 meters in its current incarnation. Two incompatible versions are backed by separate alliances. The WiMedia Alliance includes Intel and a number of other semiconductor makers, computer technology manufacturers, and consumer electronics firms. The other alliance--UWB Forum--is Freescale with just a few significant companies in the mix, including former parent Motorola.
The Bluetooth SIG had earlier signaled that it would support development of Bluetooth profiles and technology--such as object exchange (file transfer) and other widely supported and implemented higher-level modules for action--on top of the classic UWB that Freescale will release shortly to its manufacturing partners and the MB-OFDM flavor developed by WiMedia. (Freescale has talked about production silicon for years, but still lacks a single product on the market; July is the target for two partners for a USB 2.0 hub that uses UWB.)
Now, WiMedia is the only dance partner for the Bluetooth SIG. In an article in ExtremeTech, the SIG's head, Mike Foley says that the trade group's members heavily favored the WiMedia version of UWB. Freescale's head Martin Rofheart said in the same article that the company's short-term focus reamins USB 2.0 replacement given that Bluetooth-based high-speed applications won't be ready until some time in 2007 in the revised scheduled announced today.
A year ago, Rofheart said:
Fast Bluetooth may beat Wireless USB to the market, said Rofheart, since the high-level protocols are in place, and Freescale's silicon is further ahead: "The pieces are more mature, and can be wed together more quickly, rolling into the market faster."
This has proven not to be true. A demonstration last October showed Bluetooth operating over the Freescale flavor of UWB. Freescale and a few other firms that back its flavor are members of the Bluetooth SIG. Motorola was an original promoter and founder of the SIG. Freescale and Motorola have enormous product portfolios, however, and this Bluetooth SIG decision might not cause either company to leave the trade group.
The Bluetooth SIG is pursuing several different paths to make its applications continue to be relevant given the slow speed of its current paired radio technology--just 3 Mbps with Bluetooth 2.0+SDR. The applications allow for wide interoperability and leverage legions of developers who have written Bluetooth support. Changing the radio out from underneath Bluetooth is relatively straightforward compared with the adoption of an entirely new specification from top to bottom, which is why Bluetooth appears to have legs as it follows UWB, Near Field Communications (a form of very close proximity communication), and even Wi-Fi.
ABI Research put out a statement that this choice by the Bluetooth SIG puts WiMedia UWB makers in an superb position for unit volumes. "From a UWB perspective, this potentially opens up a vast market for products; we forecast over one billion Bluetooth radio shipments per annum by the end of the decade, and in the worst case -- should the UWB PHY be included in only a small percentage -- the market will still represent massive volumes of shipments that are unlikely to be encountered in other UWB implementations in the same time period," the statement said.
Alereon, a UWB chipmaker, issued its support for the decision in a statement, and trumpeted the fact that its technology was used for a demonstration at the Bluetooth SIG's meeting at which the choice of WiMedia technology was announced.
An interesting note at the end of the ExtremeTech article says that SIG head Foley didn't "rule out a merger" between the Bluetooth SIG and the WiMedia Alliance, which is the result of a merger itself of the original WiMedia Alliance (focused on higher-level protocols) and the Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA), which dealt with radio/physical-layer issues.