It’s been more than a decade since Bluetooth was developed and deployed, serving as a wireless link between two compatible devices. But has the short-range radio technology lived up to its potential or is it more-or-less limited to hands-free headsets for cell phones?

Enter “Wibree.”

Wibree was developed by Nokia as an alternative -- and later, complimentary -- solution to Bluetooth. Wibree is also a low-power, short-range wireless technology, but it promises to fill a gap left by Bluetooth.

“Wibree can be built into products such as watches, toys, wireless keyboards, gaming, healthcare and entertainment devices, and sports sensors,” says Nokia spokesman Charles Chopp. “These devices can then connect to host devices such as mobile phones and personal computers -- it is essentially the missing link between small devices and mobile phones and personal computers.”

For small and mid-size businesses, the advent of Wibree poses great potential, from changing how employees communicate with each other inside the office to enabling more applications for low-cost voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) to potentially allowing a business to communicate to the wrist watches, gaming devices, or pedometers of potential customers.

Key advantages

Wibree is said to be up to 10 times more energy-efficient than Bluetooth, but can easily be integrated with the existing technology. In fact, in June 2007 the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced that Nokia’s Wibree specification will be merged with the Bluetooth SIG and become part of the Bluetooth specification as an ultra lower power Bluetooth technology.

“Because Wibree addresses devices with very low battery capacity and can be easily integrated with Bluetooth technology, it will round out Bluetooth technology’s wireless Personal Area Networking (PAN) offering and strengthen the technology’s ability to provide wireless connectivity for smaller devices,” explains Chopp.

“You can think of Wibree as basically low-power Bluetooth,” confirms Gary Chen, senior analyst for Small and Medium Enterprise IT Infrastructure and Applications at the Yankee Group, the Boston-based IT research house. “Because it’s more power efficient, you'll get longer battery life and it can be put into smaller devices, like a pen or watch.”

Chopp says in many cases Wibree makes it possible to operate these devices for more than a year without recharging.

“It also looks promising for healthcare,” adds Chen, “as it is able to send body sensor information wirelessly to a monitoring device.”

Inherent challenges

There are likely going to be adoption challenges for Wibree, as with many new technologies. Chen says it may be “very difficult.” “There are a lot of wireless standards and not-quite-standards already, however, acceptance by the Bluetooth SIG and inclusion in a future Bluetooth spec will help a lot,” says Chen.

Others are optimistic that businesses and consumers will embrace Wibree-enabled devices because of their ease of use. “There is always an adoption curve for new industry standards," Chopp says. He adds that this is why Nokia and the Bluetooth SIG both agreed that the Wibree standard would be best served under the auspices of the Bluetooth SIG, which already has participation and support from more than 8,000 companies that are advancing Bluetooth wireless technology.

To date, a handful of companies have contributed to the interoperability specification of Wibree, says Chopp, including Broadcom, Casio, CSR, Epson, ItoM, Logitech, Nordic Semiconductor, ST Microelectronics, Suunto, Taiyo Yuden Co., Ltd. and Texas Instruments. “Several new companies -- including device, watch and access systems manufacturers -- will join the finalization of the specification, and once the specification is finalized, the technology will be made broadly available to the industry via the Bluetooth SIG,” Chopp says.

Coming to a business near you

Nokia expects the first commercial version of the Wibree/Bluetooth interoperability specification to be available during the first half of 2008. According to internal estimates, Nokia believes they will begin to see the first stand-alone products from a few vendors in the second half of 2008. These are likely to be “small button cell battery powered devices,” says Chopp. Host devices and other dual-mode devices should emerge in first half of 2009.

On its initial adoption, Chopp cites an ABI Research report published in March 2007. In it, director Stuart Carlaw predicts Wibree to be a $432 million, 809 million device industry by 2012.