Sunday, January 8, 2012

Initial look at the new Bluetooth wireless hardware and software, know as Bluetooth LE, 4.0 or Smart

The Apple iPhone 4S was the first hardware out the gate with support of this new wireless protocol. Now a few months later 3 or 4 Android phones are hitting the market with support as well.

A couple things make this technology really interesting for sending data at low to mid range data rates, say from 10 bytes per second up to a hundred thousand bytes per second.

It does look to have a few warts out the gate and there are other players in the market today and on the way. But my sense is they have put together enough of the right pieces, that in combination with the 'Bluetooth' name, market penetration and consumer understanding such that it will become the low power device connection standard.

The first benefit is that the sensor or 'end point' devices will consume very low power, battery life should range from multi-days to years and the power source need not be more that one AAA battery. Or even smaller, for example hearing aid batteries. And not to far out devices powered by solar and also using other energy harvesting methods.

The second benefit is that it is under the Bluetooth wireless family name. With Billions of phones and computers currently in the market with Bluetooth 2.x built-in, so many consumers know how Bluetooth is able to make a wireless headphone or data transfer connection today. This is a consumer adoption barrier reducer. Although Bluetooth Smart is really a combination of new wireless hardware and software that only shares some common data structures, high level API architectures and runs in the same frequency range as the current Bluetooth 2.x technology. To make it clear, a 'Bluetooth Smart' device will not communicate with ANY of the existing Bluetooth 2.x phones, devices or adapters in computers, cars or anything else prior to the iPhone 4S. More on these family incompatibilities in a bit.

Bluetooth sits in a 'distance between devices' area between 'under a foot' to 15 feet. This is a space that the current Bluetooth devices have done a very good job of providing 'cable-less', reliable and low cost connections. Bluetooth Smart improves that with lower cost and lower power while improving the connection setup speed and simplicity. There is and will be overlap with this technology and Wifi on the high speed and distance side and the new emerging NFC ( near field communication ) technology on the close in financial transaction side. However the strength of Bluetooth Smart will keep it in control of this zone around your phone and computer. And it is going to open up wireless communication by many other devices in this zone. Examples include household appliances, door locks, sensors, medical devices, fitness devices and many yet to be thought of applications.

Another huge benefit that Bluetooth Smart has, has nothing to do with technology, but rather that the benevolent technology dictator, Apple, [ or happy walled garden, if you prefer a positive spin on Apple's control ] has now opened Bluetooth Smart on the iPhone 4S and most likely all future iOS hardware to all hardware and software developers. Prior to iOS version 5 and the iPhone 4S only limited types of wireless data transfers in and out of iOS devices was allowed. Now a iPhone 4S can send and receive any type data from a custom iOS app with no restrictions placed on it by Apple [ although the app will still need to be 'approved' by Apple for sale in the App Store ]. So what does this mean? It means that a hardware developer can build one device that will communicate with Apple, Android and other phones and devices, as long as they have the Bluetooth Smart hardware and software support. Examples of this include health and fitness equipment [ I am wearing a Bluetooth Smart heart rate sensor as I write this ]; gaming devices, it will now be possible to write a app or game that will easily communicate between a iOS device and an Android device. There is no doubt that leading edge wireless connected devices [ The Internet of Things ] will often first appear in the Apple iPhone space, now these devices will be able to appear on the larger market [but often lower priced] Android market at the same time [ the availability of the app on the device is the only gate ].

All of these positives make me believe that Bluetooth Smart is going to be the standard going forward in this 'zone' and we are about to see a big wave of new wireless connections between things.

The roll out of devices with Bluetooth Smart is going to take a couple years, that is the turn over period of many 'smart phones' today based on carrier contract length and the technology price/pain obsolescence curve. The hardware development kits are starting to rollout and get on the radar screen of companies and developers with ideas. The first Bluetooth Smart devices have hit the market already, including the Wahoo heart rate belt I am trying. The ramp up of more of these devices will take about twelve to eighteen months, and getting the software bugs and battery life tuning will take about the same period. So the two year window [ starting from 4th Qtr 2011 ] of mass adoption seems about right.

To some of the challenges that the adoption faces......

First, there is the good/bad thing that is the name Bluetooth. Yes, many current phones have Bluetooth. However, they will not talk to devices with this newer Bluetooth Smart hardware. New phones that are rolling out, including the iPhone 4S have both the old and new Bluetooth radios and software built in. This will allow them to talk to both type devices. Devices that have this ability are given the Bluetooth marketing name 'Bluetooth Smart Ready'. Get the difference? The word 'Ready' at the end signifies that the device has the hardware and software to talk to Bluetooth 2.x and Bluetooth Smart devices. So, having devices around for a number of years to come that only take old Bluetooth 2.x is going to be one of the challenges to adopting this new Bluetooth Smart. I think the naming of the technologies is not very clear, though I am not sure I can think of a better set of names that would make it clear to the consumer market. Plan a lot of devices returns and tech support hours during this transition period. Here is a web page at the Bluetooth industry group that tries to explain the terms and technologies.

Another challenge is from the other wireless technologies either encroaching on this zone or directly compete with it. The biggest [and perhaps the only ] direct competitor is a wireless technology called ANT+. It has been used in the sports and fitness areas for the last 18 months. It is probably an equally good wireless technology as Bluetooth Smart, it just did not get traction in the other areas of use in this 'zone'; for example wireless audio, headphones speakers. Not getting adaption in this large use case has limited its adoption. A number of Android phones have ANT+ technology built into them today, probably millions of phones, but a vast majority of the phone owners have no idea it is there. Most of the ANT+ hardware vendors are moving to Bluetooth Smart, but this transition will be a small slow down. Mostly, I think, will be due to media sound bites playing up this 'dead end' for some users and their devices.

The other direct challenger in this area is the Zigbee/802.15.4 technology. They have been a long time player in this space, the longest I think and perhaps have the strongest technology. However, other than their new standards in the home remote controls and home energy market [ smart meters ] they have not been able to gain a foot hold in the consumer space. I do not think they will either, perhaps too bad. But perhaps one of the examples of the better technology not winning.

The 'encroachment' challenges may come from the WiFi hardware manufactures. They have been promising a WiFi radio that will cover the current WiFi use cases as well as the current Bluetooth ones. And do all of the same 'new' low power/low cost stuff as good or better [ their belief ] as Bluetooth Smart. But these radios have seemed to be 'right around the corner' for at least the last year. I think they will produce a hardware device that may meet all of these goals, but I think will be too late to market. Wifi will need to scale across a very large data transfer range, from gigabits to bits while doing this with compatibility [ at least in name like Bluetooth ] and power budget. I don't think WiFi will win, but I think we will see devices and this will add to the transition confusion of Bluetooth Smart. At the other end, I do not see the NFC/RFID technologies trying to move 'up' into the Bluetooth zone, the technology does not seem to support the data rates and power budgets that Bluetooth use cases need. There is talk that Bluetooth Smart will try to move down into the NFC zone, specifically for financial transaction applications. This battle is still to be fought, however NFC has a strong foot hold and seem to be getting support from the credit card companies. There are other battles going on around who owns this market, other than the encryption chip technology, I do not think this will be decided by wireless chip vendors.

Another thing that I think will cause some bumps in the Bluetooth Smart adoption is the current licensing and developer tools costs. While the cost of Bluetooth has been going down for the consumers, these price reductions have come due to more sales of phones and other devices not due the Bluetooth license and tools costs being reduced. As the open hardware trend is expanding, Bluetooth licensing remains proprietary. I think this closed development community will stifle innovative ideas for use of this ubiquitous connectivity of devices.

I have been experimenting with a Texas Instruments prototyping kit for Bluetooth Smart, it is based on their CC2540 chip family. I have several devices that I have wired up talking to a iPhone 4S and desktop computers using the Bluetooth Smart system. I do not have a Android device as yet with the Bluetooth Smart hardware. I've been following the developer forums at TI and a couple of other hardware manufactures that have Bluetooth Smart chip sets just now in the market. It is still a learning period of a lot of developers [ and hacks like myself ], but much progress is being made. At least by those that have deep enough pockets for the compilers and license fees.

Get ready for a MASSIVE explosion of The Internet of Things [ #IoT ] in the next couple of years, our phones, tablets, appliances and transportation devices are going to be connected to tens of other devices during the day and night.

TI CC2540 Development KitTI iOS CC2540 Demo