What is Wibree?

By Adam Stone

January 05, 2007

Answer: a low-power improvement to Bluetooth from Nokia that could be a boon if it gets any legs.

Last October, Nokia introduced Wibree technology. Analysts say it could capture major market share. Nokia says it could open up broad new wireless uses. The wireless community says: what is it?

The short answer is, it's an extension to Bluetooth, one that extends the capabilities of the Bluetooth protocol to better enable low-power uses and to better process data intermittently, rather than continuously.

That's a potentially powerful formula, according to the analysts at ABI Research, who say the market for Wibree products could reach $513 million by 2011. "I think there is a valid market for it," says principal analyst Stuart Carlaw.

That market could encompass a range of small, low-power devices, things like heart monitors for exercise or wireless wristwatches to serve as data ports for mobile phones. Wibree's low power consumption will enable these uses, according to Jamey Hicks, director of Nokia Research Center Cambridge. "Bluetooth is great," he says. "You see how small headsets get. But if you want something even smaller than that, you need less power."

Wibree isn't meant to replace Bluetooth. Rather, it's intended to operate side-by-side with the existing protocol, offering dual-mode functionality depending on the need.

While such potential uses may intrigue, some may wonder whether the world of telecom either wants or needs a new form of wireless connectivity.

The potential success of Wibree could depend in large measure on the vastness of its proud parent. Nokia is bigger than a breadbox, to say the least, and the fact that it is the one bringing Wibree to the table gives the technology a strong running start.

ABI's vision for the success of Wibree suggests that Nokia will begin forcing Wibree into handsets at the soonest possible moment; that silicon vendors will bring dual-mode devices to market at prices very close to those of Bluetooth devices today; and that the adoption of these dual-mode gadgets will rise quickly.

"In the beginning, you'll see a lot of dual-mode devices pumped into the market," largely by Nokia, Carlaw says.

While Nokia can pump the market full of Wibree in the early days, analysts say that initiative still may not be enough to ensure the technology's adoption over the long haul. For that to happen, other handset vendors are going to have to invest in Wibree's premise of lower power, smaller form factors and intermittent usage. "It's not going to be enough for Nokia to do it alone," Carlaw says. "If other handset vendors don’t put it into their devices, it isn’t going to fly."

Whether they put it into their devices or not could depend in large measure on whether the new technology wins adoption by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, or Bluetooth SIG. Acceptance by that governing body likely will be a key deciding factor in the success or failure of Wibree.

That could take a while, Carlaw says. The Bluetooth SIG has a track record of moving slowly in the adoption of changes.

While Nokia says its Wibree technology can fulfill a range of functions even without tying itself to Bluetooth, it seems clear that the technology's best hopes for uptake are to ride along with existing Bluetooth deployments. Carlaw notes that some 600 million Bluetooth chipsets shipped in 2006. In the near future, mobile TV, music and gaming all could implement Bluetooth uses, for example in cordless MP3 headsets -- Carlaw points out that the latest game consoles PS3 and Wii are Bluetooth-enabled.

In the end, it may all come down to muscle. Will multiple handset makers ultimately find themselves tempted by Wibree's capabilities? As the 800-pound gorilla, Nokia has every reason to think they will.



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