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Home radio networks: One standard to rule them all?

Could a new one swim with the big fish?

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In command and control a plethora of new technologies are vying to take on the infrared zapper: Bluetooth Low Energy, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Intel's Cliffside to name a few, and those are complimented by Near Field Communications and RFID devices which aim to provide some of the short-range functionality if not the interactivity.

We'll be looking in more detail at the options for high and low-capacity home wireless technologies in future articles, but for the moment we'll take a look at what's wrong with the primary consumer-radio technology in use today - Bluetooth.

Bluetooth owes its survival to the way it was developed: Engineers sat around and decided what they wanted to be able to do, then developed a standard that would do that. This made Bluetooth very capable, though the designed-by-engineers background still shows through when it comes to usability.

Picking holes in Bluetooth

The most popular radio standard fits right between the usage models we've defined for the home. It's unable to carry a decent video signal, though these days it can carry proper (albeit compressed) audio, and while it was designed for low power consumption the world has moved on and these days it consumes far more power than the competition.

But the criticism most often levelled at Bluetooth is the complexity of pairing - connecting devices together for the first time so they can communicate automatically in future. To the engineers who designed Bluetooth the idea of selecting a named device, then typing the same four-digit code at both ends, seemed a trivial process, but to today's Bluetooth user it's cumbersome and impractical - especially for headsets and other devices lacking a keyboard of any kind.

The Bluetooth SIG has addressed pairing in version 2.1, allowing devices to automatically advertise their presence when first powered up, though not a lot of devices support that process as yet.

So, for a wireless standard to find a place in the home it's going to have to resolve the pairing issue, and peg itself below Bluetooth in the low-power-low-bandwidth category, or above it in the high-power-high-capacity arena where Wi-Fi is currently dominating.

As for Bluetooth, the standard is trying to reinvent itself as an umbrella protocol - a channel over which other standards can be negotiated. It's a popular role, and one that Near Field Communication is targeting, but without it there's nothing to stop Bluetooth being squeezed from above and below as the needs of the wireless home coalesce into two distinct models, with Bluetooth falling squarely between them.

Over the next week or two we'll be taking a closer look at those models and the technologies hoping to serve them, to try and establish if the wireless home of the future is going to bear any resemblance to what we were promised when we were kids. ®

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