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Monday, April 6, 2009

Only "Evil Radios" Have Products (Barcelona 1)

Bluetooth Evangelist Nick Hunn posted "Zigbee and the evil Radio ", analyzing the competition between Bluetooth Low Energy (BT LE) and Zigbee for the crown of low power wireless standard. Not agreeing on all his points, I admitted he did point out the reality in front of BT LE and Zigbee.

Nick indicated that BT LE will easily reach the critical mass because the volume of cell phone deployment, which is enough to support the economics required by the semiconductor suppliers. "So whether or not the smart energy or Continua Alliance supports it, Bluetooth low energy will gain market traction".

Then, Nick presented charts and numbers to indicate Zigbee's desperation. "In contrast, ZigBee PRO needs to win the approval of key industries if it is to survive. At a recent conference a spokesman for one of the major chip companies behind the ZigBee PRO healthcare profile let slip the fact that if it failed to win Continua approval, his company would probably kill their ZigBee PRO healthcare development effort. Other proponents within the ZigBee PRO camp are openly talking of the competition with “evil radios” as they ramp up the level of rhetoric (and give this piece its title). That smacks of an increasing level of desperation, but then again, ZigBee needs this approval far more than Bluetooth."

Nick's post was online Mar 27, exactly the same day of the Continua Technical Working Group meeting when each of the technology rivals presented their self-scores. The "evil radios" here refers to those proprietary-based solutions such as Z-Wave, ANT etc. If we count the technology contenders for Continua Health Alliance, this list should also include BodyLAN and Sensium.

I had some concerns of this Barcelona summit (see my blog "can we have hopes for Continua Low Power Radio Selection "). But I had still anticipated some serious technical debates and self-evaluations. Now I look back my Barcelona trip. The turn-out was somewhat surprising. Also surprising is the quiet media afterward. If we exclude Nick's post, there has been no press release, report or blog describing the event. Last year was totally different. CSR made two press releases for the BT LE demonstrations, even for the very premature demo based on the draft version 0.5, followed by hundreds of blogs. (see my posts "Witness of ULP Wireless Demonstration " and "Bluetooth Low Energy Technology Demonstration: Progress made but Questions Remained ")

In Barcelona, the low power radio events was split into two 3-hour sessions on two days; March 25 was the technical demonstration and March 27 is the self-scoring. If allowing me to use one word to describe each event, "hyping" is for the first day and "entertaining" is for the second. As I said I was surprised, so Mar 25 was surprisingly hyping and Mar 27 was surprisingly entertaining.

First surprise, Z-Wave, the number one competitor of Zigbee for home automation applications, did not show up at all. In fact after Zensys being acquired by Sigma Designs , Z-wave has not created any noticeable noise in Continua. But to me, compeletely quit was not in my expectation. Continua should feel very disappointed, as Z-Wave is the market leader in terms of deployment volume in the home market.

The second surprise was the two cheap press releases on the day of demonstration. The first one was from ANT , announcing the preview of nRF24AP2 product series which offer AES-128, frequency agility and sub two dollar volume price. The second was from Zigbee announcing the "completion of the development of Health Care public application profile" with "full support for IEEE 11073".

In my view, both announcement were for the purpose of Continua. The ANT release was actually from Nordic Semiconductor. The mentioned product nRF24AP2 will not be sampled until June and the AES-128 feature will not be available unitl end of this year. Anyway, this is a hardware annoucement three months in advance.

Relatively, the Zigbee release is even cheaper. The entire release is full of gobbledygook. I wonder how serious for the commitment to "full support" IEEE11073. I know all other low powe radio technologies say that the IEEE standard is too heavy on overhead and not suitable to direct implementation on top of low power radio. Now for the already not "ultra" low powered Zigbee, what the power consumption could be if running IEEE11073 ontop? It is also hard for me to understand the "completion of development" of a document or profile without giving a verison number. The release also does not mention any relavent product in design and availability to the market.

Of course the main focus of the wendnesday afternoon was the technical demonstration and presentation: Each of the five companies, in alphabet sequence, presented and demonstrated the technology in front of the ~50 audiences. Each company also had a table top display setting. ANT, BT LE and Zigbee all demonstrated systems. Sensium only presented a dev board based point to point setup. I can not remember anyting BodyLAN showcased.

ANT is the only technology dare to show power consumption. It showed in front of all the audiences the multimeter readings of two ANT modules served as transmitter and receiver. ANT is also the only technology presented commertial products (watches, bike computers,weight scale, heart rate monitor, food pod etc.) from amazingly many brands, like Garmin, Timex and Beurer. A commertial iPhone bridge was also very insteresting with an application claimed available on iTune. Still ANT has not been build into cell phones yet. But here is another alternative to the miniSDIO card approach.

BT LE demonstration was very plain. A Polar heart rate monitor sent data to a Nokia phone then to a PC application. The demo was even less impressive than they did last July. ("Bluetooth Low Energy Technology Demonstration: Progress made but Questions Remained ") I still feel they should be able to do a much better job. Something frustrating in the BT LE SIG?

Probably, the withdrawal of their top competitor stimulated Zigbee guys, they did an amazingly good job with multiple companies involved, such as Philips, Freescale, Motorola, Telecom Italia etc, half of the member companies sitting in the Continua Low Power Radio sub-team. A network was set up in and outside the demo room with multiple routers. The most impressed was a moving ECG sensor able to send data to a PC through different routers as access points. Another setting was a weigh scale transmitting data which hopping several routers and gateways to reach a web service terminal outside the room. So people had to yell the readings. A Moto Q phone with a Zigbee miniSDIO card (from the same supplier of the ANT miniSDIO card) was presented in this setting. Certainly neither the weight scale or the ECG was coin cell powered. So their last demo were wearable sensors from a company called 24eight. With the movement of a body, a PC is able to plot a chart on the screen. But I feel the sensors, like the weight scale and ECG, were just prototypes.

Impressive as it was, the demonstration could probably change a lot people's impression of Zigbee. However, for an ultra low power technology, Zigbee was not able to demonstrate coin cell powered hosts and routers - except for the Moto Q, all other Zigbee hosts and routers were main powered. This will remain the biggest drawback of Zigbee. Because of such a good demo and such as big unaddressed issue, Zigbee's demonstration could be the hype of the day.

Therefore, the third surprise of mine was the quietness of BT LE in the contrary of the Zigbee hype.

And the forth is the availablility of products in the markets. Calling the forth surprise or disappointment, after an entire year, we still only see ANT having products available in the market. If considering Nike+ is powered by BodyLAN, then we have two. But unfortunately, both are the so called "evil radios". Being shipped in volume regardless, this is why these proprietary based solutions are evils in the eyes of the industry standards.


  1. Great post. I was wondering what was going on in Barcelona because there were very few stories in the press. I think this post is probably the best reference I've seen for the Barcelona event.

    FreakLabs Open Source Zigbee Project

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.