Bluetooth to Battle for Personal Area Network Crown

Our phones are about to undergo another revolution. They have already shifted from devices designed for phone calls to computers that connect us to the web, but in the years ahead, they will also become the means people capture physical and analog data about the world around them and transfer it to the web. Today people are using smartphones as heart monitors, calorie trackers and pedometers, and as more and more people buy smartphones, the number of people trying these apps out will rise.

But to communicate with sensors on your body, in your home, in a medical setting or even with an exercise machine, your handset needs a radio (actually both devices need a radio) and that radio should be able to transmit data over short distances using a minimum of power. Several companies and technologies are vying to provide that radio technology as I detail an article at GigaOM Pro (subscription required). While I provide more information in the GigaOM Pro article, below are a few of the players and their respective PAN technologies hoping to gain a toehold in the handset.

Bluetooth Special Interest Group: Bluetooth, which is a specification for sending data over short distances is the dominant means of connecting headsets to phones. Now it’s also used in a variety of mobile-health applications such as blood pressure and glucose monitors.

Bluetooth has the advantage of already being integrated into most handsets, but its critics claim that it is a battery suck. However, a low-power version of Bluetooth (Bluetooth Low Energy) is on its way and will solve some of the battery life issues, says Mike Foley, the head of the Bluetooth SIG, in an interview. However, most devices today don’t have the Bluetooth Low Energy chips (although they contain other iterations of Bluetooth radios), so it will take a few years until those radios are in most consumers handsets.

Dynastream Innovations (ANT): Dynastream, a subsidiary of personal-navigation powerhouse Garmin, has created a low-power, short-range wireless technology called ANT. The benefit of ANT is that it consumes much less power than Bluetooth or ZigBee chips, but it’s not yet widely available in handsets. However, at this year’s CES, ANT had some wins with TI, introducing a combined Bluetooth and ANT chip, and Sony Ericsson (admittedly not a big player in the smartphone industry), who said it would deploy ANT in its handsets. Other fitness-focused devices such as the Fitbit (see disclosure) also use ANT.

Apple: Apple modified Bluetooth to make it more power-efficient to create its PAN technology, which powers the radio inside the Nike pedometer. It could also end up in other devices designed to attach to Apple gear such as iPads, iPhones and iPods. Apple notes that its proprietary radio technology operates in the 2.4 Ghz band, as does Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ANT and other technologies. In addition to its program with Nike, Apple also has fitness machine makers embedding compatible radios and sensors inside their machines to communicate with iPhones and iPods.

However, the future for personal area networks won’t belong to one standard or one company. Most likely a variety of radios will make it on smartphones. For more on the coming battle for personal area network supremacy and the technologies and players involved, read the full analysis at GigaOM Pro.

Image Source: flickr user Faizuddin

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