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Bluetooth 4.0 won't kill off predecessor

Introduced months after Bluetooth 3.0 was officially adopted, 4.0 is expected to plug holes in its predecessor and be "very influential" in opening up technology to wider range of products, particularly for advanced markets like Asia, says analyst.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

If the focus of Bluetooth 3.0 was its high-speed transfer rate capability, then the latest iteration of the technology at 4.0 is its low-energy feature, which will open up a wide range of new opportunities for both peripheral devices and business models, predicted a Gartner analyst.

Nick Jones, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said in his e-mail reply to ZDNet Asia that Bluetooth 4.0 will be a "very influential specification". This is because the low-energy feature provides a "standard way for a small low-power sensor or peripheral devices with very long battery life to talk to a mobile phone", he added.

"We have never had this capability before and it will enable all sorts of new applications in areas such as blood pressure sensors within the healthcare sector and watches or even jewelry that has caller ID display in the new mobile peripherals market," elaborated Jones.

According to Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) spokesperson Cynthia Chan, Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE) was introduced in December last year. Its low-energy feature supports the transfer of very short data packets from eight to 27 octets at the speed of 1 megabit per second (Mbps).

Other low-energy attributes include a more intelligent controller which allows the host device to "sleep" for longer periods of time and be woken up by the controller only when the host needs to perform some action, she added.

"This allows for the greatest current savings since the host device is assumed to consume more power than the controller," said Chan in her e-mail.

Its predecessor Bluetooth 3.0 High Speed (HS), on the other hand, was made for speed. In an April press release, the technology was said to get its speed from the 802.11 radio protocol and the inclusion of its protocol adaptation layer (PAL) provides increased throughput of data transfers at approximately 24Mbps.

"With...Bluetooth version 3.0 HS, consumers can expect to move large data files of videos, music and photos between their own devices and the trusted devices of others, without the need for cables and wires," noted Chan.

4.0 necessary to fix 3.0 issues
When asked why SIG decided to come up with a new specification so soon after 3.0 was introduced, Gartner's Jones said the organization probably thought it was "over-complex" to deliver a single version of Bluetooth that utilized low power while offering high-speed data transfer at the same time.

He also noted that the high-speed (Wi-Fi) iteration was important because of the demise of ultra-wideband as part of Bluetooth. "So I believe SIG opted to deliver Wi-Fi support as rapidly as possible because it was essential for competitive reasons, and wait a little to deliver very new features such as low energy."

Another Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, Keith Dulaney, said this differentiation in iterations may turn out to be a good idea because "[SIG] needs to keep the power down [for the technology], and under the further revisions of 4.0, it can increase speed while maintaining power constraints".

Bluetooth SIG's Chan pointed out that both iterations of Bluetooth can be put together in a "dual-mode implementation". Manufacturers can integrate the latest low-energy functionality into an existing classic Bluetooth controller such as the 3.0 HS architecture. This will allow the device to share much of the existing radio and functionality, but at a minimal cost increase, she said.

"The low-energy specification paves the way to a vast new market for watches, remote controls, and healthcare and sports sensors. It has the potential to communicate with the hundreds of millions of Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, PCs and PDAs that are shipped each year...and provides huge market potential for manufacturers to develop products with this specification," Chan added.

She did note that 3.0 will not fade into the background. SIG expects the iteration to "add demand drivers to existing Bluetooth devices" by adding new experiences at higher data rates and strengthening the reasons to implement Bluetooth in all mobile phones and computer devices that need large data file transfers between devices, said the SIG spokesperson.

Both Dulaney and Jones expect Bluetooth 3.0 to last a long time, too, with the latter predicting 4.0 to be a "subset" of 3.0.

4.0 to flourish in markets like Asia
Jones thinks the features of 3.0 will remain, but 4.0 will add new features to the technology. He also reckons 4.0 will eventually become "ubiquitous" in all Bluetooth devices, and by 2013, all handsets using Bluetooth will ship with the 4.0 iteration.

"I believe we will see a demand for 4.0 in devices such as laptops because it will provide a superior standard for peripherals such as wireless mouse," he said. "For handsets, Bluetooth tends to be a feature for smartphones and feature phones, so 4.0 will flourish in markets where demand for these devices are strong, such as Western Europe and advanced markets in Asia."

The SIG spokesperson noted that it normally takes nine to 12 months for a product to be rolled out to market after a specification is adopted. "We expect to see products with low-energy technology in 2011 and more shipments in 2011-2012," said Chan.

According to the organization's December press release, Michael Foley, executive director of Bluetooth SIG, highlighted that "Continua Health Alliance [a global, non-profit coalition of healthcare and technology companies] has already selected Bluetooth low-energy technology as a transport for the next version of its guidelines".

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