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Smartphone, the key for Bluetooth® low energy technology

By Alex West, Director of Connectivity at IMS Research

The smartphone market, forecast to reach 700 million units by 2015, is expected to switch en masse to Bluetooth low energy technology, enabling these phones to become a hub for a multitude of other wireless devices.

The future of Bluetooth low energy technology will be tied to how quickly phone manufacturers and platform designers incorporate it in their phones. The smartphone market grew over 15 percent in 2009, and is forecast to grow by an average of over 25 percent each year to 2015. This will drive the change in how devices communicate, with Bluetooth technology well placed to be one of the main technologies facilitating this.

The world watch market was down 20 percent in 2009, the pager market has all but disappeared, and the outlook is lacklustre for standard SatNav systems, with GPS navigation devices being replaced by navigation services on smartphones.

With smartphones becoming ever more powerful (dual core processors will be available in the next generation), their functionality continues to increase. It is possible that new smartphone applications will similarly weaken the market for monitoring products, as the cellular phone becomes a hub communicating with a range of devices.

In spite of the processing power now available in phones, and the availability of devices that would be enhanced with wireless connectivity, the ability to communicate properly with them will define how quickly this ecosystem grows. Bluetooth technology is the short-range wireless interface of choice in mobile phones. Now present in 100 percent of smartphones, Bluetooth technology has also been widely used to provide wireless connectivity to other devices such as laptops, headsets and gaming devices. In terms of volumes, it has to date had limited success in other applications.

A diverse range of devices exist that require low energy communication (such as those powered by coin-cell batteries). The release of the Bluetooth v4.0 core specification in July 2010 provides a solution for wireless technology with such low levels of power consumption.

What other devices could phones eventually connect to? Initial opportunities have already been well discussed, but the number can only grow, as innovative companies dream up new use cases for products working in or with phones. Applications already highlighted include smartphones with Bluetooth low energy technology used as control devices, for example as the remote control for a TV or set-top box; or for use as a key fob for access to a car or home. Bluetooth low energy technology will also enable the smartphone to operate as a sports performance monitor when communicating with heart rate and cadence sensors.

The market for smartphones is forecast to reach almost 700 million units by 2015, with Bluetooth low energy technology IC forecast to be incorporated in all such phones. With some of these phones connecting to several other devices enabled with Bluetooth low energy technology interfaces, it is well within the realm of possibility that a market for more than 2 billion units of Bluetooth low energy technology ICs could develop over the next 5-7 years.

The speed at which Bluetooth low energy technology in smartphones becomes mainstream will dictate how the market develops. Early indications are that the first phones with Bluetooth low energy technology will hit the market in the first half of 2011, with high volumes forecast to be shipped in 2012. Only after a "critical mass" of smartphones with Bluetooth low energy technology is reached will the majority of device manufacturers with products connecting to the smartphone enter the market.

While some device manufacturers may hesitate to develop solutions until such phones are on the market, others have indicated their products are close to finalization and waiting only on the release of the relevant Bluetooth profiles.

© Bluetooth SIG, Inc. All rights reserved.