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Monday, June 8, 2009

Forced Marriage is Not Sweet - Thoughts on Continua Low Power Radio Selection

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know"     - Donald Rumsfeld

The unknown unknowns can not bother us, since we don't know. The known knowns can be accepted, adopted and lived with. Somehow, it is the known unknowns that frustrate us.

Today Continua Health Alliance announced the selection of Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee as its choices of low power radio for its version 2 interoperability design guideline. Will this announcement settle the low power radio competition? At least this is what a lot of people hope. Think the following questions:

1. Who is doing what?

In Continua's official statement, the organization picked Bluetooth Low Engergy and Zigbee for different applications. The announcement says it this way,

"The two wireless technology standards are targeted to support mobile and fixed location devices as defined by the next iteration of the Continua Health Alliance Design Guidelines. The alliance has selected Bluetooth low energy wireless technology (...) to enable low power mobile devices such as activity monitors and heart rate sensors to be used to monitor a user’s health and fitness levels. Additionally, Continua has selected Zigbee Health Care technology for low power sensors that can be networked in a variety of settings, and utilized in devices such as motion detectors and bed pressure sensors to enhance the daily living of those who require assistance aging independently."

So there is a clear line in between mobile and fixed location devices. Think again. If I want to monitor my heart rate or blood pressure, do I need to prepare two sets, one is to use inside a "professional settings, homes, recreation centers"; and another for use with my phone and watch in order to have a walk outside? Or there will be gateways or bridges or Zigbee/Bluetooth co-exist sensing devices. This sounds a solution. But wait, do we wish low cost and low power consumption? Will such a device require three certifications from Zigbee and Bluetooth and Continua?

I bet that Bluetooth Low Energy will get into "fixed location devices" and Zigbee will also cross the line to offer "mobile" applications. If you do not believe me, go grab a marketing presentation from each organization and have a read. When there is a mine of business, who is Continua? Both Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Engergy want to do both PAN and LAN. Continua made a compromised choice of today, but left a long pain and challenging management job for years.

2. Bluetooth Low Energy reigned by Continua?

Continua selected Bluetooth Low Energy is under a condition. "The alliance has selected Bluetooth low energy wireless technology (pending finalization of the specification) to enable low power mobile devices." The benefit of select a standard in working is the possibility to influence the standard to develop in the desired direction. This is not my saying. This is the savvy of Continua.

The low hanging fruits of low power radio application is consumer electronics in sports and fitness, not home automation, nor health. Look at the market of ANT+ and Nike+. If we consider Polar's analog sensors, together they have delivered more than 20 million products. This market is proven, mature adn growing. Products include heart rate monitor, foot pod, watch and phone (not yet, but someth alike, as iPod and bike computers). But the majority of Continua companies are focused on medical devices. The requirements of a sports application are different from a medical application. One of the significant one is about the position of IEEE11073 standard, which is part of Continua standard today. IEEE11073 is designed for connection-oriented protocol (USB and classic Bluetooth) and is heavy for any low power radio.

To compete with the existing ANT+ and NiKe+, any day from now before Bluetooth Low Energy getting into the market is a day for competitors to grow. The consumers care more of what work for them and care less of Bluetooth or Continua. When the business is flowing to competitors, will Bluetooth Low Energy be willing to listen to Continua? The release of Bluetooth Low Energy specification has been slipped n times. The new target is the Christmas of this year. I believe any new requirements from Continua will further delay the schedule. To be realistic, I would say it is a good job if the Bluetooth Low Energy spec can be published in Q1 2010.

3. Will Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Energy get along, cooperate and really put consumers in front to offer an integrated and complete solution for Continua use cases?

"A rigorous process was employed over the course of ten months to select from many outstanding technologies". This process is politically rigorous, but not technically. Zigbee had done a great job through out the process to miff Bluetooth. But this process miffed Zigbee in the end. The competition in between this two technologies is obvious in the market today and this Continua process had pushed the competition to a new emotional level. (see my post "how did a radio get full mark") A married couple in such situation will divorce. Now Continua forces them to get married. As they get married, let's have the best wishes to the couple anyway.

4. Will the evil radios go away, eventually?

Except Sensium, all other three radios, ANT+, BodyLAN (Nike+) and Z-Wave are actively delivering products to different consumer markets, and have built eco-systems. This Continua announcement establishes a barrier for them to get into the health market. But I hold the belief that Continua / Bluetooth Low Energy / Zigbee will unlikely take over their markets completely either. This announcement will make these evil radios more focused. To some extent, not being selected by Continua may not be a bad thing for these proprietary technology based solutions at all. Because to achieve ultra low power radios requires focusing to the exact market needs and trading off others.

After years when we look back, this Continua low power radio selection could just be an event, not a milestone to the ultra low power wireless sensor industry. let's wait and see.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observation. I agree: we will continue to see considerable competition between BLE and Zigbee.

    As for ANT+ and BodyLan, I see things slightly different. Other than their deal with Garmin, ANT+ owns little market share. True, they publish a long list of partners, but this list contains many companies who purchased a development license and never intend to launch product.

    BodyLan is a great technology, but open beats closed every time. Unless Nike+Apple opens this up, I don't see it becoming a major factor in low-power wireless.