New Features to Compete against Thread, ZigBee
Bluetooth was formally standardized in the late 1990s as a short-range wireless communications protocol to connect handsets to computers and accessories, replacing cables and the line-of-sight infrared specification. Now, almost two decades after its mobile-focused beginnings, Bluetooth is evolving further into a general connectivity technology.
Last week, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced several key enhancements being developed by the organisation. The group is focused on staying relevant in the growing market for connected things, as competing specifications like Thread and ZigBee gain traction.
Bluetooth improvements expected in 2016 include longer ranges, greater speeds, lower latencies and mesh networking. Mesh networking has been a particularly sought-after feature, and several SIG members have introduced their proprietary mesh methods for Bluetooth. Each node in a mesh network can participate as part of the network’s infrastructure — in such a decentralised topography, a series of smart light bulbs in the home, for example, could act as middlemen to relay information down the line. For smart homes and enterprise, mesh networking is needed to create low-cost, robust connectivity.
In announcing highlights of its outlook for 2016, the Bluetooth SIG is pre-empting potential market losses to competing local-area specifications. ZigBee, for example, claims it is already used in more than 900 connected products including door sensors, light switches, pulse oximeters and smart bulbs, and Philips uses ZigBee in its popular line of Hue connected light bulbs.
The Thread Group was founded in 2014, led by Google’s Nest Labs, to create an IP-based, royalty-free wireless networking protocol specifically for the Internet or things. Specifications like Bluetooth and ZigBee have legacies that predate today’s vision for the Internet of things, but Thread is being designed and marketed explicitly as an Internet of things standard. The Thread Group’s core membership includes ARM, Nest, Qualcomm, Samsung and Silicon Labs.
The market for networked things may not be mutually exclusive, and homes and offices are likely to contain connected products using different protocols. The Bluetooth SIG sees an opportunity in this fragmentation, developing an umbrella protocol for smart home communications through its Generic Attribute Profile — an air interface-agnostic method of interworking with other protocols that could include ZigBee and Z-Wave. Bluetooth’s volumes gives it special privileges here, but the Bluetooth SIG hasn’t yet started to emphasize the technology in this role.
Bluetooth’s history gives it the numbers and name advantage, despite growing competition. Its installed user base spreads across most smartphones and late-model laptops and tablets, enabling direct communications to accessories including Bluetooth-enabled keyboards, light switches, mice and smart bulbs. Other personal area network specifications currently require additional network hubs, but the Bluetooth SIG can utilize its market dominance and brand recognition. Bluetooth’s profiles already cover products as diverse as automobiles and remote controls. It’s already a market leader in connecting things.
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