Bluetooth Low Energy: It’s Not Bluetooth. It’s Better – Much Better

If you’re thinking that BTLE is just an evolution of Bluetooth, well, you could be right. But it’s really a very different animal altogether and one that could have a brilliant future ahead of it.

Ten years ago, I wrote my infamous "Bluetooth is Dead" column for Electronic Engineering Times. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative; more importantly, I was certainly wrong in my conclusion if one considers the raw volume of Bluetooth units shipped over the years. In terms of applications, though, traditional Bluetooth has really been limited (again, in terms of volume) to headsets, and that market has largely evolved into voice connectivity within cars - and you know how I feel about talking on the phone while driving, so let's just leave it at that. Regardless, Wi-Fi really should have evolved to address the core Bluetooth apps; I remain disappointed that it did not, and convinced that someday Wi-Fi will address these apps obviating entirely the need for traditional Bluetooth.

But wait - there's a new Bluetooth in town, Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE), and I am genuinely excited about the possibilities here. Like many of you, I've largely ignored developments in this space, which remains centered on low-bandwidth, limited data-rate applications. If you examine the marketing effort around BTLE, you'll see an emphasis on vertical applications - augmenting the classic Bluetooth space. But this time we may very well see a blossoming of the Bluetooth effort into productive and, again, exciting new directions.

But, to begin, BTLE isn't Bluetooth. Sure, it's under the Bluetooth 4.0 umbrella, but the roots of this technology are in Nokia's Wibree, a separate effort from the mid-2000's that was subsumed into the Bluetooth SIG perhaps in recognition of the point I was so inelegantly trying to make with the infamous column noted above. Bluetooth needed new technology to continue to remain relevant, and BTLE might in fact just be that.

I've personally lumped BTLE in with ZigBee and Z-Wave, and some have compared it to NFC, although NFC is very, very limited in range. But all of these are relatively low-data-rate technologies aimed at control and telemetry applications. What's particularly interesting about BTLE, though, is that it provides decent Layer-7 throughput (200 Kbps or so), good range (way more than 10 meters), good security and integrity features, very low connection set-up times, and, of course, as the name implies, excellent power-consumption characteristics. Oh, and it's supported in the latest iPads and iPhones, which makes building devices based on it very attractive indeed. There are some great, low-cost chipsets and developer kits available from major suppliers. When we're talking Internet of Things/M2M/the evolution of RFID/etc., BTLE really needs to be on the list.

All of this is important to me because I've spent the majority of the past month designing a new product that will very likely use BTLE. I could have gone with Wi-Fi here, and the original thought was actually to use USB, but BTLE is so enticing - and so powerful, not to mention inexpensive - that the first prototype will very, very (look - we're up to two verys already!) likely use BTLE. More on the product later (likely much later), but, for now, if you've got a requirement for limited-range, relatively low-bandwidth communications, BTLE is absolutely worth a look.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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