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Why, why, Wibree?

Is Nokia's new wireless standard really mature enough?

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Analysis We're not short of wireless standards these days, so quite why Nokia felt the need to launch another one on Tuesday is open to question.

Wibree is a low-power option for Bluetooth, at least that's how it's being pitched by Nokia. But in reality there seems little similarity between the two. Wibree will use the same antenna and frequency (the increasingly crowded 2.4GHz band), but other than that the work has been to ensure that it will happily co-exist with Bluetooth, not be compatible with it.

The Bluetooth SIG said it has been in discussions with Nokia about incorporating Wibree into its standard, but that discussions were still proceeding - which is unsurprising given the lack of details yet available on Wibree.

Bluetooth works because it incorporates a couple of really useful technologies, which Wibree will struggle to emulate.

The first of these is the comprehensive frequency hopping which Bluetooth devices do when communicating. Interference in one part of the 2.4GHz band will have little or no impact as Bluetooth devices leap around, unlike their becalmed Wi-Fi cousins. This hopping does consume some power, so Wibree won't use it, but will instead do something very clever indeed; the details of which are not yet available.

Bluetooth devices can also interrogate each other to ask about capabilities and functions. This is known as the Service Discovery Protocol and prevents you sending documents to your headset or routing a phone call to your printer. Again, Wibree will have something very clever to replace this, but we don't know what yet.

We do know that Wibree packets will be dynamic in size, unlike the fixed-length Bluetooth packets, so there is some power-saving there if small amounts of data are being sent. We also know that Nokia has developed prototypes to test parts of the technology, and that we should have the full standard some time towards the middle of next year.

This looks pretty poor in comparison to some of the other short range wireless technologies on the market, such as Zigbee and Z-Wave, both of which are established with hardware in production.

Neither standard feels they have much to fear from Wibree. In a statement, the Zigbee Alliance said: "We can only surmise that this is simply a proprietary solution masked as some type of industry driven push."

A representative of Zensys (owners of Z-Wave) was equally taciturn: "It seems like a marketing spec, they have said nothing which would worry me".

So, is there room for another wireless standard? Nokia certainly thinks so, and says that while Zigbee and Z-Wave are aimed at home automation and industrial markets, Wibree has a different focus.

Quite what that focus is isn't clear. Nokia keeps citing the connected watches and shoes, as well as keyboards and mice, as its target market. But it seems unlikely that those constitute enough of a business to justify their own wireless standard. Most wireless mice and keyboards use proprietary protocols, but where a standard is needed then Bluetooth seems to do OK. Squeezing their market down to watches and shoes surely makes it insignificant, and ironic, as sales of watches are dropping because people use their phones to tell the time.

So we are left with a half-finished standard, addressing a tiny market which might not even exist, and the question of why Nokia chose to announce it now. Surely it would have been better to wait until the standard was completed, at least in draft form?

It seems Nokia is not entirely unaware of the challenges facing Wibree. It tells us the reason for the announcement was to allow other companies to sign up early, something Nokia will be urgently hoping some of them will do. ®

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