Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nokia's Wibree vs Bluetooth as PAN of Choice

Nokia has launched a consortium to promote yet another wireless transmission standard they call Wibree.

Wibree? Why not. This isn't an example of a big manufacturer looking to establish a proprietary standard so they can hog the market for lower power wireless devices. This initiative is an open standard for a new low power PAN or Personal Area Network.

But, wait a second. Doesn't Bluetooth fill that niche? It does now, but there are good reasons for yet another standard. Nokia's incentive for going back to the drawing board is to develop radio chip sets that use an order of magnitude less power than Bluetooth while retaining a 15 to 30 foot operating range and a data rate of 1 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz ISM band. Those were the original Bluetooth specs, although Bluetooth 2.0 bumps up the bandwidth to 3 Mbps.

Nokia believes the low power consumption will enable applications that use the small button type batteries to gain wireless access. These would be things like digital watches, toys and sports sensors. Perhaps this will also include in-the-ear headsets much like the invisible hearing aids. Who knows, maybe a combination hearing aid / wireless headset will be a hit with the legions of rock music deafened baby boomers now addicted to their cell phones.

Does Nokia really have the hubris to think they are going to blow away the billions of Bluetooth devices deployed or in the pipeline? I don't think so. In fact, Nokia is suggesting a dual-mode chip that will support both Bluetooth and Wibree. This is similar to the way that WiFi chipsets support both B and G standards. Technology advances generally start off including both old and new standards, at least for awhile and sometimes forever. Consider that some new personal computers still offer parallel printer ports, floppy disk drives and PS2 keyboard & mouse connectors, in addition to DVD, CD-ROM, USB, and FireWire.

Another interesting feature of the Wibree link layer specification is a scheduling mechanism that transmits Wibree traffic in-between Bluetooth transmissions. This makes it even more likely that the dual-mode radio chips are going to proliferate, certainly in Nokia products. Other features of the proposed standard include encryption, ultra low power standby operation, and simple device discovery. Initial user profiles will include sensor, human interface device (HID) and watch.

Nokia expects to have their commercial version of the Wibree interoperability specification available during the second quarter of 2007. They've already got no less than Epson on-board, along with Nordic Semiconductor, CSR and Broadcom Corporation.

The HID human interface emphasis seems particularly interesting. Sports watches that take your pulse and blood pressure and running shoes that track your pace and distance seem like only a start. Perhaps soon you'll not only be able to track your kids whereabouts by cell phone, but also know what's going on using a camera and microphone in their watch and how they are doing physically by biometric sensors. On the other end of the age spectrum, this technology could also be valuable for elder care. A more sinister application would be EEG sensors monitored through a corporate Wireless network, so the boss would know who's REALLY sleeping during those endless staff meetings.

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