Bluetooth’s shaken reign

A new wireless technology is coming to the communications market — and if reports about HaLow are accurate, it could challenge Bluetooth for the networking protocol throne.

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Bluetooth — the wireless technology — is named after 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth. He’s known for uniting the tribes of Denmark. Still, like many monarchs, he had enemies. Now his tech namesake has a rival as well.

In early January, the Wi-Fi Alliance unveiled HaLow (pronounced “halo”), a new version of Wi-Fi designed to enable web connections for low-power devices such as fitness trackers, home-automation sensors and mobile medical monitors. Proponents say HaLow is the ideal technology to support the Internet of Things (IoT): it consumes relatively little electricity, which is perfect for small devices that lack potent batteries or access to other power sources.

“Essentially, this is Wi-Fi’s answer to Bluetooth,” writes Jacob Kastrenakes in an article for The Verge. Bluetooth also uses relatively little power, and until now, many people seemed to think it was the most appropriate wireless technology for IoT.

Yet HaLow has a distinct advantage over Bluetooth. As Mary Catherine O’Connor at RFID Journal points out, HaLow is an IP-based protocol, so it links to the web directly. Bluetooth has to transmit data to a hub or a tethered device such as a smartphone or tablet, which then connects to the web.

HaLow’s express connectivity will be critical, according to Wired writer Brian Barrett: manufacturers of wearable tech gadgets such as smart watches and activity monitors are especially keen to enable their products to access the web independently, he suggests.

So HaLow may be ready to take Bluetooth’s crown. Is that inevitable? Not necessarily. For one thing, the engineers behind HaLow still have a lot of work to do to prepare it for real-world situations. Consider, for example, that the Wi-Fi Alliance has yet to develop a simple, secure way to connect and configure HaLow devices that lack displays or input mechanisms.

What’s more, as Anton Shilov at AnandTech notes, the IT industry isn’t likely to abandon its formidable ecosystem of Bluetooth developers, engineers and marketers any time soon.

A few wireless industry watchers also point out that the companies and organizations behind Bluetooth will probably continue to work on the technology. It’s possible that by the time HaLow arrives on the market in or around 2018, Bluetooth will have advanced, potentially diminishing HaLow’s advantages.

All of this is to say that Bluetooth’s demise at the hands of HaLow is far from certain.

By contrast, of course, King Bluetooth’s death is a matter of history; he was killed in a battle instigated by his rebellious son Swein.

Perhaps Danish tribe-leaders once watched Swein’s rise from upstart to regicidal rebel. Similarly, CIOs and other IT decision-makers would be wise to scrutinize HaLow’s development closely, looking especially for signs that this emerging alternative could be useful to their organizations.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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