This week's announcement that Bluetooth is going to adopt ultra-wide band as a connection method was certainly a good move for Bluetooth.
What many people missed is just what a huge help it will be to UWB - in all the areas where the ultra-fast wireless technology is having difficulty. Anyone who thinks otherwise is working from ignorance of Bluetooth - or just not thinking.
Let's get real on Bluetooth
A lot of US "experts" appear to know rather little about Bluetooth. Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, for one, apparently told IDG News Service that Bluetooth has not had interoperability testing. This would be news to anyone who has, like Techworld staff, been to any of the Bluetooth SIG's Unplugfests.
US observers also tend to miss the fact that Bluetooth is in millions of handsets worldwide, too, because many of those handsets are GSM devices, used in Europe. Bluetooth has been shipping millions of units a week since 2003, and its omnipresence in mobile phones is something that US observers don't rate highly.
"While [Bluetooth] may have brand recognition, the brand doesn’t stand for much except a confusing user interface and at least a few hours of your time to get two things connected," said Dulaney. Again, that doesn't square with our experience - which is that headsets such as those from Jabra or Plantronics work happily with any phone you ask them to.
A faster 3 Mbit/s version has started appearing which, while far short of UWB's 480 Mbit/s, shows a standard that is not standing still.
We think that Bluetooth could have at least three roles in UWB:
- As a "pacifier" that encourages operators and regulators to accept UWB
- As a quicker and more mature alternative to the proposed Wireless USB, and
- As a bridge between the rival UWB standards proposals, possibly providing a common signalling mode.
Bluetooth as a pacifier for the operators
At the moment, UWB is approved in the US, but faces opposition in Europe, from mobile operators, and hesitation by the regulators.
Acceptance by Bluetooth could reassure both operators and regulators, say UWB insiders. "Bluetooth's acceptance of UWB will help with the European regulators," said Eddie Murphy of the Communications Research Network in Cambridge (formerly the CII). "Bluetooth has caused no problems, and UWB is even lower power and faster."
"UWB Bluetooth will put more pressure on regulators and provide more evidence from a business perspective that UWB is non-interfering," said Martin Rofheart, director of the ultra-wideband operation at Motorola's Freescale subsidiary. It will reassure operators, he said because: "Bluetooth goes in cellular devices, and the Bluetooth SIG can have a strong voice in ensuring the technology is developed in such a way as to ensure there is no interference."
Freescale itself, points out Rofheart, already makes chips for 2G and 3G wireless phones: "We are aligned with wanting the techologies s to work together," he said, "and we can drive that agenda more effectively from within the Bluetooth SIG."
Some believe that the opposition by operators may turn out to be posturing, anyway. "The operators are having to come to terms with UWB," said Murphy. "They are taking a cautious view now, but they may well come to the view that UWB is more of an opportunity than a threat, once they work out the real implications."
Bluetooth as a competitor for wireless USB?
Another issue that has yet to be picked up is the impact on Wireless USB, the UWB-based cable-replacement technology backed by Intel and the WiMedia alliance.
Both Wireless USB and UWB-based Bluetooth will carry data at 480 Mbit/s, replacing cables. While Wireless USB is aimed at PCs, and Bluetooth is for mobile and handheld devices, Rofheart admits, "There may be some intersection."
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."
"Users have been educated about PANs by Bluetooth," said Rofheart. They will add it to their PCs, in order to transfer pictures from their mobile devices, and might see little need to add Wireless USB later.
Of course, it should be pointed out that Rofheart is only hinting, and Wireless USB is likely to have very strong backing (with Intel likely to ultimately put it in all PCs).
Bluetooth as a peacemaker in the standards war
Most people overlooked that, on the same day as Bluetooth signed up to UWB, one of the ultra-wide band equipment makers joined Freescale's UWB Forum.
Pulse-Link had previously looked like going it alone in the war in the IEEE standards body's UWB committee, between Intel's WiMedia, and Motorola's UWB Forum.
The company, which is later to market, but promising even faster silicon than the others, had also proposed a standards compromise a year ago. The proposed "common signalling mode" (CSM) which all UWB devices could use, would negotiate communications, choosing between WiMedia or UWB Forum style communications, or other future UWB flavours, according to what the other devices nearby can use.
The big players have so far studiously ignored the CSM proposal, but this week, the UWB Forum has set up a CSM Working Group, to be led by Pulse-Link's John Santhoff. "CSM is a very sensible path," said Rofheart. "It looks like the merits will speak for themselves."
So what has changed to make CSM a viable idea? The Bluetooth SIG is going to be working with both UWB camps, with a view to putting Bluetooth protocols across either. If CSM is being discussed, another possibility could emerge.
CSM only has to have a very low data rate, so why not use Bluetooth as the CSM? "We could use the existing Bluetooth as a CSM," said Rofheart. "It is backwards compatible across all devices. That's as good or better an answer as I've heard from anyone else."
All in all, it looks promising for both Bluetooth and UWB. "Bluetooth is the fastest selling radio on the planet," said Rofheart. "Adding UWB will increase its value to the consumer."