It's Looking Rather Blue These Days

Aug. 9, 2006
What do we need to achieve a wireless utopia—one that integrates communications technology for the ultimate in consumer convenience?

What do we need to achieve a wireless utopia—one that integrates communications technology for the ultimate in consumer convenience?

Imagine a world in which your entire music and video collection resides in your pocket. Imagine that as you get into your car a device somewhere in your pocket can link wirelessly with your car entertainment system, offering you the opportunity to begin streaming hi-fidelity stereo audio or even video. No more tapes, CDs, or even DVDs. Of course, you could make a good old-fashioned voice call though perhaps you might prefer to make a video call or check your mail instead.

When you arrive home, this pocket device could link to your domestic "multimedia centre" and seamlessly synchronise music, podcasts, recent TV programmes and films, your schedule information—anything in a matter of seconds so that it integrates with your life rather than the other way round. Now isn't that an example of technology as it should be? Low-maintenance, smart devices that can seamlessly communicate without wires, exchanging large quantities of data at very high speed?

What do we need to achieve an integrated wireless utopia similar to what I've just described? Mobile devices capable of wireless data transfer at a very high rate with lower power consumption.

Today's next big thing in the personal-networking arena is Ultra Wide Band (UWB). This technology offers theoretical data rates of an incredible 480Mbps. The flavour of UWB promoted by the WiMedia Alliance, known as Multi-band Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (MB-OFDM), is already the basis for the certified wireless USB (wUSB) standard. In March of this year, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) formally announced that a new generation of Bluetooth technology would also be based on WiMedia Alliance UWB.

Why should we go to the trouble of developing a new version of the Bluetooth standard if we already have another personal-area-networking (PAN) standard based on the same fundamental technology? Furthermore, if we have the ever-evolving 802.11 wireless LAN (W-LAN) standards, then why do we need either of these new UWB standards anyway?

In fact, 802.11n promises a higher maximum data rate of 540Mbps and a range of 50m.

Take caution

But let's be careful here. For starters, 802.11 is a set of standards addressing the needs of local area networking (LAN) and, therefore, represents a wireless replacement for LAN technology, such as Ethernet. Wireless USB and the Bluetooth standard are for PAN, which has an entirely different set of needs and priorities. The parallel development of these PAN standards and the fact that they're lining up alongside 802.11n illustrates the demand for wireless technology isn't just about data rates. It also concerns the integration of technology with its environment.

Okay, but do we really need two PAN standards if they're both based on the same UWB technology and promise similar data rates? Well, it's important to recognise that UWB is simply the underpinning technology for wUSB and UWB Bluetooth. It's the vehicle for wireless transfer—and not the actual application.

How any technology is put to use in the field is of the utmost importance, though, and there are several reasons why. The most obvious and critical differentiator between the two standards is the power usage.

The wUSB standard is a replacement for (wait for it) the USB cable. Generally speaking, devices such as PCs, printers, scanners, hard disks, and flash drives aren't too concerned about a prudent use of power. In fact, in the overwhelming majority of cases, these devices will be plugged into a mains socket. In contrast, a mobile device must treat power as a scarce resource to share efficiently between its seemingly ever-increasing portfolio of current-thirsty hardware functions. A wUSB device will constantly consume energy to advertise its presence to the world, as well as attempt to group with a multiple of similarly "beaconing" devices that might be within range.

On the other hand, a Bluetooth device will prefer to sleep as much as it can—as deeply as it can—and seek to establish active contact with other devices only when called upon to do so (usually not more than one at any one time). Having completed its duties, it will revert back to an energy-saving doze. Regarding power consumption, Bluetooth wireless technology is the older and wiser cousin of the more energetic and extravagant wUSB.

Don't underestimate the strength of Bluetooth wireless communication. It's not so much a specific technology as an evolved profile for short-range data transfer for mobile devices.

Since its emergence in the late '90s, it has undergone numerous tweaks and upgrades thanks to the work of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which now lists over 5000 companies worldwide as members. The next release of the current generation of Bluetooth technology, code-named "Lisbon," promises to make yet further enhancements to its usability, security, and quality of data transfer.

The sight of a mono or even stereo Bluetooth headset in use is now common, and Bluetooth technology is increasingly making its way into car information systems. Moreover, according to Strategy Analytics, by 2009 more than half of the mobile phones made worldwide each year will be Bluetooth-enabled.

Is all this because of the data rate? Absolutely not. It's because Bluetooth functionality has evolved over a significant period of time to adapt to and integrate with its environment—a mobile environment (see Figure).

The UWB Bluetooth hype is here and, yes, we should get excited because it's something worth getting excited about. The first Bluetooth release based on UWB, code-named "Seattle," threatens to improve the throughput by two orders of magnitude.

But hold on! There's still a lot of work to do. A truly global standard needs a common global frequency range approved by the various regulators worldwide. It also requires a comprehensive technical specification that can be implemented by the industry. Furthermore, the cost of enabling a mobile device needs to be low enough to facilitate mass adoption and initiate the virtuous circle leading to "economy of scale." But these are merely the expected challenges that are already being addressed on our road toward a wireless utopia.

The Seattle release of the UWB Bluetooth specification will combine a smart, well-adapted, commercially successful profile with a very-high data-rate-bearing technology. A very appropriate marriage of power applied with wisdom.

If you are mobile, the future is very definitely Blue.

Joe Petrie is a marketing manager at Renesas Technology Europe and a member of the Bluetooth SIG Core Specification Working Group.

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