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Mobile IoT: Article

Bluetooth Gains Speed

Handset integration is key

After a bumpy road, cool applications drive Bluetooth acceptance into high gear.

The electronics industry loves to hype the latest, greatest trend, and not long ago the topic du jour was Bluetooth. When Bluetooth technology didn't meet analysts' projections for exponential growth, many people dismissed it as not being viable. Quite to the contrary, Bluetooth is coming into its own in a big way, driven by a few applications that are spearheading the technology past a critical mass of usage. As a result, prices are dropping and consumer demand is accelerating.

'The Product Hype Curve'

If we look back at the evolution of Bluetooth over the past few years, it's clear that this technology has simply followed the typical "product hype curve" that most new technologies experience. When still in the R&D phase, a new technology captures the imagination of the press and then the public. Soon everybody is talking about this promising new technology and speculating about everywhere it could be applied. Even before it goes into initial manufacturing, enthusiastic market researchers make enormous predictions for usage and growth. Then, as often as not, the new technology encounters inevitable growing pains, engineers must iron out implementation details, and the technology doesn't come to market as quickly and as problem-free as everyone had hoped.

The press jumps on these issues and starts to speculate that the technology will never fulfill its initial promise, and other critics - especially those developing competing technologies - jump on the bandwagon. However, as designers overcome problems, the technology experiences normal growth, and doubts about its shortcomings and inability to meet market projections dissipate. Finally real products appear, suppliers get design wins, and users adopt the technology, which then follows the normal life-cycle curve.

Following this path, Bluetooth experienced a first burst of enthusiasm; then more recently, its critics listed reasons why it would fail. Meanwhile, the electronics industry has addressed most of the downsides and Bluetooth is entering a phase of widespread adoption. Brace yourself for an onslaught of new products and accessories.

A recent study by In-Stat/MDR says that the worldwide chipset shipments almost doubled in 2003 to reach an astounding 69 million units, and the report predicts sales of more than 700 million units in 2008. Today, Bluetooth is becoming a common feature in cellphone handsets, and in Europe, headsets for mobile phones are an everyday item. The technology is also making solid penetration into the automotive market.

Handsets Lead the Charge

The mobile phone segment is driving 60% of the Bluetooth market, as an ever-increasing number of new devices and accessory kits is introduced. The Zelos Group reports that while only 2.8% of handsets sold in the U.S. in 2003 had Bluetooth capability, that percentage is increasing to 9.4% in 2004 and will reach 81.8% in 2008.

New devices are combining all the most popular wireless options. An excellent example is the most recent HP iPAQ Pocket PC devices (the h6300, hx4700 and rx3000), which incorporate three-way wireless capabilities: GSM/GPRS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. This coexistence allows simultaneous and seamless connectivity across multiple networks. Users can, for example, make cellular calls using their Bluetooth headset while using WLAN to browse the Internet and Bluetooth to print Web page content.

Yet other applications will encourage phone makers to add Bluetooth to their feature set. A user with a camera phone will easily send files to a printer. A wireless headset will allow users to enjoy a phone-based music player. The possibilities of multiplayer gaming are enormous. In a business environment, people will exchange electronic business cards or other small files. Another application that could have great appeal is the "chat" profile where phone users can communicate with each other without going on the public network. This feature will surely prove popular with teens, who are already accustomed to "chats" via their PCs. In fact, teens may well spearhead usage of this service much as they initially drove the market for short text messaging, PC instant messaging, and so many other technology advances.

Automotive Drives Usage

While personal connectivity is a major contributor to Bluetooth's success, there's also little argument that automotive and wireless headsets will help drive growth. Studies show that 20-30% of cellular minutes are used while driving. Some governments are citing this as a safety issue and are now requiring the use of headsets or hands-free speakerphones while driving. In November 2001, New York was the first state to prohibit the use of cellphones in cars unless the operator has a hands-free phone. More recently, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have passed similar laws, and this year 33 states have considered such laws. Internationally, more than two dozen countries currently restrict or prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones in cars. Bluetooth is an obvious solution to this conundrum.

With a Bluetooth headset, users can use voice dialing, control call waiting, and receive calls without fumbling to find their phones. Consumer desire to communicate on the road has prompted automobile makers to make Bluetooth an option. A wide range of mid-market and luxury brands offer Bluetooth, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Lexus, Mercedes, Peugeot, Saab, and Toyota. Market researcher ABI Research expects the number of vehicles with factory-fitted Bluetooth hardware to reach 22 million globally in 2008. And not only are automotive applications helping sales of Bluetooth chipsets, they're also playing a large role in raising public awareness of and confidence in the technology.

Thanks to Bluetooth, auto makers no longer need to install a cellphone; instead users can choose the handset and feature set they like. Drivers can route telephone audio to the car's speakers and soon will expand in-car entertainment centers by playing MP3s. In addition, Bluetooth will also start to connect cellphones to GPS receivers.

Overcoming the Speed Bumps

What of the concerns that have dogged Bluetooth in years past? Engineers have resolved early issues of size, power, and cost. For example, prices for a Bluetooth chipset have dropped below $3.50. As for system size, consider TI's BRF6150 chipset, which integrates power management, PLL, loop filter, antenna switch, filters, and other analog functions that were previously external. It connects directly to all battery types with a supply range of 2.7-5.4V, draws only 12 mA for a voice link, and has a shutdown mode that powers the chip down to 6uA when not in use.

Some people are concerned about data rates. Today's Bluetooth supports 1Mbps, and there are efforts underway to increase the data rates to many times that rate, potentially reaching 10Mbps and beyond. Today's data rates serve the initial major markets for handsets, headsets, and automotive applications well; higher data rates will not only make Bluetooth practical for moving large files, they will also allow the transmission of higher quality audio, while performing other tasks such as using wireless peripherals such as a keyboard or mouse, all on one chip.

But these high data rates are overkill for many core Bluetooth applications, and that's one reason why many of the technologies that detractors tout as Bluetooth killers haven't yet done that job. Wireless LANs don't have the on-the-fly configuration flexibility of Bluetooth. ZigBee (based on 802.15.4) has become a darling of many industry observers, but this low data rate standard is only now being finalized and it's realistic to expect it to travel the same hype curve as did Bluetooth with a reality check right around the corner. And even though many reports imply that it could serve as a Bluetooth replacement, the reality is that ZigBee is tailored for very different markets, in particular those in the industrial and home automation areas.

UWB (ultra wideband) is another technology that some are positioning as an interesting alternative to Bluetooth in cellphones. This attempt to achieve higher data rate transfers may very well prove true, but whereas Bluetooth is deploying now in a wide variety of form factors, UWB is still several years down the road.

A long journey down the "product hype curve" is nearing its end. Those remaining naysayers who doubt the viability of Bluetooth should simply look at the numbers, and/or experience a Bluetooth headset with a Bluetooth-equipped cellphone. There's a good reason why more than a hundred million Bluetooth chips have been sold, and the number is growing every day. Those who continue to believe that other short distance technologies will dominate the wireless landscape and that there's no place for Bluetooth are missing an enormous market opportunity. System designers must also be aware that this technology is already starting to enter the consumer mainstream and should prepare their product plans accordingly.

More Stories By Marc Cetto

Marc Cetto is general manager, Mobile Connectivity Solutions, at Texas Instruments.

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