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Wi-Fi enters PAN, challenges Bluetooth

Posted: 04 Jun 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Wi-Fi? personal-area network? Bluetooth?

Move over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is making its way into the personal-area network (PAN).

Challenging the future of Bluetooth, a new startup and an Intel Corp. program point to a future for Wi-Fi in a broad range of peripherals, ranging from computer mice to cellular headsets and MP3 players.

Startup Ozmo Inc. has unveiled a chip and software it claims will offer wireless peripherals more bandwidth and battery life for less cost than Bluetooth. The company is working with Intel, which has been researching the potential of Wi-Fi PANs for its mainstream Centrino notebooks.

The two efforts could be just the tip of the iceberg in a long-term trend toward Wi-Fi's eclipse of Bluetooth.

Right time
"People have been talking about Wi-Fi mice, keyboards and headsets for a long time," said Craig Mathias, a consultant with Farpoint Group. "Originally, Wi-Fi chips were too big and power hungry, but that's not the case anymore."

With improvements in process technology and volume 802.11 shipments, the time is ripe for Wi-Fi to make a play in low-cost, low power, short-range applications, said Mathias. "And I am sure there will be other companies pursuing this," he said.

While Mathias foresees "no immediate big impact on Bluetooth," he expects there could be one in the long term. "In a couple of years, a Wi-Fi PAN business could be very successful," he said.

Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth
Ozmo leverages the fact that a wide range of notebooks and, increasingly, media playersincluding the Apple iPod Touchuse Wi-Fi. That enables the company to offer peripheral makers a stripped-down, dual-band 802.11 chip that has a 10m range and sells for about the same price as a Bluetooth chip.

The 130nm Ozmo device measures 6mm x 6mm. Its simplified receiver does not require support for roaming or scanning to link to an access point. The chip uses Wi-Fi Protected Setup to establish a 9Mbit/s link over 2.4- or 5GHz bands to any client running the Ozmo Wi-Fi driver software. The software fits into existing Wi-Fi and USB software stacks as an additional driver layer.

The startup uses its own protocol to maintain a tightly fixed polling interval, and a duty cycle as low as 2 percent for a computer gamer's mouse to keep power consumption low. According to the company, that compares with a duty cycle of about 12 to 15 percent for Bluetooth.

The resulting Ozmo solution supports battery life of up to nine months in a mouse vs. four months for Bluetooth, and talk time of 20 hours compared with about six for Bluetooth, said CEO David Timm.

Ozmo's peripheral device delivers 9Mbit/s over 10m.

Ozmo got its start as an idea from Katelijn Vleugels, an RF designer at Atheros. She and her husband, Roel Peeters, a high-tech marketing exec, incubated the concept. Both of them had experience in startups, though they had never founded a company.

The duo snagged two angel investors and quit their jobs to start Ozmo in December 2004. To date the 26-person company has garnered about $12.5 million in funding from investors including Intel Capital.

"The technology hurdles seemed quite significant back in 2004," said Peeters. "We needed to create a piece of silicon cost-effective with what was out there, and the protocols to run it at low power. But the real leap of faith back in 2004 was that Wi-Fi would become ubiquitous in platforms."

After a decade of development, Bluetooth is now coming into high-volume use in computers and cellphones. Forward Concepts estimates 531 million Bluetooth units will ship this year in cellphones alone, representing a $1.4 billion market that will grow to $2.7 billion in 2012, when some 1.2 billion units ship in handsets.

So far, bandwidth and battery life have not emerged as major Bluetooth complaints, suggesting Ozmo may have an uphill battle educating users on the benefits of its technology.

"I think customers do care a lot about the battery life and talk time of products like headsets, and they don't want to charge them more often than they do their cellphone," said Timm. Portable media players like the iPod represent another target for Ozmo. "We believe high-end media players will need Wi-Fi" for wireless headsets, Timm said.

Bluetooth's relatively narrowband technology typically uses A2DP compression to squeeze a 1.4Mbit/s CD audio signal down to 375Kbit/s. Some say the compression can degrade sound quality.

"We've heard a number of companies saying they want to use uncompressed stereo audio" for headsets, said Timm. "Bluetooth doesn't offer the battery life on the platform or the headset" that MP3 makers want, he added.

So far, Ozmo has no design wins for the chip, which is sampling now and will be in production this fall. Peripheral and router maker Belkin is testing the Ozmo approach but has not made any statements about using it in products.

Intel support
Ozmo is working with Intel as part of the CPU giant's Cliffside research program, described at the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai in April. The program uses standard Wi-Fi protocols to handle personal-area networking tasks such as syncing notebooks with MP3 players, digital cameras and projectors. Intel claims its technology can connect up to eight Wi-Fi devices to a notebook on a PAN while the computer is on a Wi-Fi LAN. The technology could improve the quality of media streamed between a computer and a TV or other display, because it eliminates the latency of going through an access point.

The Cliffside program uses a modified Intel Wi-Fi chip with additional buffers to switch between PAN and LAN modes. It is expected to ship within 12 months, said Gary Martz, a marketing manager for the program. The software, which will include support for Ozmo's chip, will be available on all Centrino platforms, but OEMs can choose whether to enable it.

Martz said use will probably be limited to consumer notebooks for the first year or so

Ozmo will demonstrate its chip publicly for the first time at the Intel booth at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan, this week. Intel has said it will work to pave the way for industry standards for Wi-Fi PANs.

Mathias said he foresees a day when a combination of Wi-Fi and next-generation cellular technologyprobably based on the Long Term Evolution standardwill be the only wireless radios any device needs.

"Wi-Fi's success is unquestionable. It will be in everything," said Mathias. "Twenty years from now people will still be talking about Wi-Fi."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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