Having been involved with the Bluetooth low energy initiative since the very first days (when it was known as Wibree) I remember the driving force was “to add another [ultra low power (ULP)] radio to Bluetooth chips without adding another radio”.
While handset manufacturers such as Nokia were keen to link their cell phones to ULP wireless peripherals, there were not so keen to add yet another radio chip to a device that already boasted three or four RF devices. The Bluetooth chip – a ‘low power’ radio – was already inside most handsets, so it seemed logical to use that as the base for an even lower power version.
Six years since that initiative started, Bluetooth low energy has arrived. Apple’s iPhone 4S, for example, is among the first devices to sport a Bluetooth v4.0 chip (which incorporates Bluetooth low energy) and Nordic µBlue chips can already be found in a range of peripheral devices from companies such as Casio and Dayton Industrial.
This is a satisfying moment for the Bluetooth SIG, and the companies involved in the development of the technology, such as Nordic Semiconductor.
Moving beyond hands free
But it’s also a challenging moment. The introduction of Bluetooth low energy heralds the ‘second wave’ for Bluetooth wireless connectivity – and the moment Bluetooth can shake off its reputation as a technology just for hands free cell phone usage – but it won’t be an easy transition.
Engineers get it. They understand that Bluetooth v4.0 is “two technologies in one” and requires Bluetooth v4.0 chips (‘dual mode’ chips with conventional Bluetooth and ULP capabilities) and Bluetooth low energy devices (‘single mode’ chips with just ULP functionality).
But the consumer is another matter. They aren’t interested in the technicalities – they just want to take advantage of the ability to link their new cell phone (or laptop or PC) to a range of new peripherals such as watches, health care sensors, and toys.
The Bluetooth SIG’s answer is to introduce new branding: Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready. The former will be the brand mark for the billions of peripheral devices, powered by coin cell batteries, that will communicate with each other and ‘hub’ devices such as Bluetooth Smart Ready-cell phones and -PCs. Bluetooth Smart Ready will be the brand mark for hub devices that would previously have used a conventional Bluetooth chip but will now migrate to a Bluetooth v4.0 chip. Cell phones, game consoles, PCs and ‘smart’ TVs fall into this category.
Bluetooth Smart Ready devices will feature a dual mode radio (BR/EDR + low energy) and will be able to communicate with each other, legacy Bluetooth devices, the cloud, and Bluetooth Smart peripheral devices. Most importantly Bluetooth Smart Ready devices will provide a mechanism for the end user to update the functionality of a Bluetooth Smart device using the Bluetooth Smart Ready device. The user will be able to download and install new profiles that support the new devices he purchases and won’t have to depend on the hub device being supplied with support pre-installed.
The new branding is important for the consumer because it will help them choose the correct product for their activities. It’s not possible to buy a Bluetooth Smart heart rate belt, for example, and expect it to talk to any old Bluetooth-chipped cell phone. It has to be a Bluetooth Smart Ready handset because that means it has a Bluetooth v4.0 chip rather than a non-Bluetooth low energy compatible one (such as a v2.1 or v3.0 device).
And the branding has come not a minute too early. Apple is shipping products and Microsoft has announced support for Bluetooth v4.0 in Windows version 8. And apart from the iPhone, Motorola and NEC have announced handsets with Bluetooth 4.0 inside. Asus, Acer, and Sony will follow soon with computers. That second wave is tall and about to break.
For more information on Nordic’s Bluetooth low energy products go to tinyurl.com/bn6h9ak
- Svein-Egil Nielsen is Nordic Semiconductor’s Director of Emerging Technologies & Strategic Partnerships and Member of the Board, Bluetooth SIG
This article first appeared in Nordic Semiconductor's Quarterly Newsletter, Quarter 4, Winter 2011.