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Analysis: Bluetooth leads the way


(IDG) -- Wireless technology can enable many new, exciting products and markets. Easy, affordable, short-range communication, free from the restrictive constraints of wires and cables, is fueling a quickly growing mobile device industry that's blurring the lines between IT, telecommunications, and consumer electronics. The wireless trend is also fostering new and innovative solutions to common communication dilemmas faced by business, industry, and the medical profession.

Here are a few examples:

A busy executive, fumbling through his briefcase in a corporate meeting, realizes that the status report he needs for the next agenda item is on his desk across town. Fortunately, this executive has a wireless portable computer, so he's never out of touch with vital reports, financial records, and other important information. Because a wireless network has been added to an existing wide area network (WAN), this company's mobile executives always have instant access to the Internet, email, and important files.

Due to growth, an insurance company has to relocate 250 people to a location a few blocks from their main facility. The extended location needs to be as similar as possible to their original headquarters. The existing 1.544-Mbps T1 line between the two buildings won't do. To upgrade the current link to the T1 equivalent of the 100 Mbps available at headquarters, they'd have to purchase about 66 T1s from the phone company, then figure out how to interface them between the buildings. A better solution is a wire-free link.

An ISP in Toronto is believed to be the first to offer wireless Internet access and wireless Intranet connectivity across an entire city. Through point-of-presence towers (approximately 6 miles apart), this ISP provides wire-free Internet access to the business world. It can also offer prices significantly lower than wired solutions', without sacrificing reliability.

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Health-care professionals rely heavily on their facility's database for patient records, prescription data, and other medical information. Doctors, nurses, and staff would like to carry their network with them on their daily rounds. Now, unrestrained by network cables and armed with mobile electronic clipboardlike devices, they do. Patients' charts are entered directly into the main computer with a few simple keystrokes or mouse clicks, eliminating reliance on often-illegible handwritten notes.

Users in all walks of life want to be able to plug in wire-free everywhere. It's not that simple, though; there are many wireless technologies on the market, and they operate in dissimilar modes and on incompatible frequency bands. Consequently, many wireless devices simply can't communicate with each other.

Enter Bluetooth

Bluetooth is an industry-standard point-to-point, short-range, radio frequency connectivity technology. It's a specification for incorporating wireless communications capability into existing and new products. Bluetooth has applications in everything from mobile phones to wireless LANs. Today, more than 1,200 companies, including computing, telecommunications, and networking vendors, support the Bluetooth wireless standard.

Why are standards so important? Because without them interoperability becomes a major limiting factor in successfully applying wireless technology. With the Bluetooth standard, all types of mobile devices can easily and reliably communicate at short range.

Behind the scenes

Plugging in may be easy for the end user; however, it's not easy to actually integrate the Bluetooth wireless design specification into a final product. Let's look at the major steps:

  • Determination if Bluetooth architecture is applicable

  • Specifications for power, performance, interoperability, etc.

  • Component selection

  • Customized implementation based on Bluetooth specification (design of hardware, software, antenna, etc.)

  • Design of all major blocks (hardware and software)

  • Extensive testing and verification

  • Industrial and mechanical design

  • Integration of the Bluetooth block into target application (product)

  • Production prototype
  • System testing and field trails

  • Transfer to production

Many vendors, integrators, and product managers want Bluetooth's wireless functionality built directly into their product. This can be done in several ways -- most commonly by adding a complete Bluetooth module to the printed circuit board (PCB), or by adding a radio frequency (RF) module and a baseband chipset to the PCB. Bluetooth can also be implemented as an IP on a test chip, and later integrated into a final product. In any case, wireless-product novices often underestimate the complexity of the design stage and the integration task. Those new to wireless design will almost certainly exceed their time-to-market allotment. Remember Murphy's Law? Issues and problems almost always arrive when integrating wireless functionality into embedded devices. Here are some common difficulties:

  • Needed component comes out late or has bugs

  • Component vendors cherry-pick customers

  • Test and verification status and results are unclear

  • Interoperability issues surface due to specification ambiguities and implementation detail

Those troubles are not unusual for a new technology, and Bluetooth is difficult to implement and integrate. It's a wireless-product specification, which means it's challenging and expensive. It's also a new and immature design standard for which little production hardware is available, and software is only just starting to appear. Many Bluetooth users are new to wireless technology, and it isn't as easy as it looks. For those developers, and for those with time-to-market deadlines, a viable alternative may be to outsource the Bluetooth design and integration tasks.

Benefits of outsourcing

If you pick an experienced Bluetooth design vendor, you immediately gain their know-how and expertise; outsourcing can decrease your time-to-market (and reduce your associated costs) because these vendors have already undergone the initial Bluetooth learning phase, successfully battled the problems, and developed successful solutions. Some have worked with the specification since its 1998 launch -- they've designed protocol stacks and baseband cores, and have completed many projects. Some have many engineers constantly working on Bluetooth, giving them up-to-the-minute knowledge about the still-evolving standard.

Bluetooth designers can customize industry-standard wireless functionality for your new or existing products, while your own engineers concentrate on your core technologies. Collaborating with a Bluetooth design integrator gives you field-proven methodologies for building in your wire-free communication utility. This reduces development risk and provides a shorter time-to-market solution. That's a big plus for everyone -- design team, product manager, manufacturer, and customer.

The design process should include extensive simulations and verifications, in order to obtain the highest manufacturing yields. The focus must be on quality, so ample time should be allotted for project completion, which is easier to do when you outsource. An outsourced project is contracted; deadlines and budgets are established up front. By contrast, in-house projects tend to fall victim to continually changing marketing pressures and budget modifications -- often causing corners to be cut in the testing and verification processes in order to rush-produce the end product. You usually end up paying dearly for this later.

The amount of time between initial design concept and manufacturing varies greatly and depends on many factors, some of which the vendor can control. According to my research, the likely duration for developing a new, moderately complex wireless product is about 15 months -- from specification work to volume production. Remember, the Bluetooth subsystem perspective of time-to-market may be very different from your complete-product perspective. Bluetooth may not be the gating factor.

Cost also varies greatly from product to product, and can be improved with outsourcing. An outsourced, customized Bluetooth design application can provide payment options that are unavailable in-house. Often, the completed wireless design can be purchased using one of a number of business models. An unlimited license option gives customers unlimited use of the design in the given technology; a license and royalty model allows you to pay the outsourcing vendor based on the number of implementations of the design or the number of chips sold with the design. The choice of business model often depends on the relationship between the design vendor and the customer.

When comparing the costs of in-house development and outsourcing, don't forget to include the extras: items like test equipment, design tools, and the cost of qualification.

Another benefit of outsourcing is that the vendor should include a customer education component as part of its design services. Typically, the vendor will teach the customer how to reuse the Bluetooth wireless design in derivative products.

Bluetooth is definitely making the transition from hype to reality. The Bluetooth specification is suitable for many applications, including desktop computing and peripheral devices, handheld communicators, portable PCs, mobile phones, consumer electronics, and extending the company LAN to mobile employees. But this is also a new wireless technology, and first samples of such technologies almost never work properly.

For new product development, consider the different options Bluetooth offers -- the wireless subsystem can be implemented as a module, a chip set, or by integration into the main product -- and choose carefully in order to maximize long-term profit. Consider the software's quality, and take time to properly develop and test it. Don't take shortcuts in order to meet an unrealistic marketing deadline. Bluetooth will be around for a long time, and many generations of products will follow.

Microsoft eyes Bluetooth for personal digital networks
November 16, 2000
Bluetooth still in teething stage at Comdex
November 13, 2000
Acer ships Bluetooth-enabled notebook PC
October 16, 2000
First official Bluetooth product unveiled
October 6, 2000
Toshiba brings Bluetooth to market
September 26, 2000

Ericsson and Intel make Bluetooth pact
Is Bluetooth biting off more than it can chew?
Ericsson creates separate Bluetooth business
(NW Fusion)
Bluetooth comes close to the wireless ideal
Microsoft throws its weight behind Bluetooth
Dell: PCs, servers, storage to remain high growth areas
Desperately seeking Bluetooth
(IT World)

Bluetooth Group

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