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Monday, 16 March 2009

What to make of the Bluetooth SIG / WiMedia merger?

This merger has been a long time coming, believe you me. I’ve known that the WiMedia Alliance was to be merged into the Bluetooth SIG for nearly a year, but couldn’t talk about it. There have been some things to sort out, and it has taken until now for the two parties to decide that they can go public.

So, what is the official line? The lead statement from a press release issued by the WiMedia Alliance today (I have stripped the whole version in at the end of this piece) says: “The WiMedia Alliance announced today it is entering into technology transfer agreements for the WiMedia Ultra-wideband (UWB) specifications. WiMedia will transfer all current and future specifications, including work on future high speed and power optimized implementations, to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), Wireless USB Promoter Group and the USB Implementers Forum. After the successful completion of the technology transfer, marketing and related administrative items, the WiMedia Alliance will cease operations.”

Note that the WiMedia Alliance is the only one to press release this. The Bluetooth SIG has chosen to restrict itself to telling only its members. There are reasons, but they are not for public debate.

Note too that the WiMedia Alliance is also transferring ownership to the Wireless USB Promoter Group and the the USB Implementers Forum. Now, unlike the Bluetooth SIG and every other wireless industry alliance that Incisor works with, those two USB organisations go completely their own way and are somewhat insular. I can’t be bothered to keep trying to talk to them so if you need comment from them I wish you good luck. But the fact that they are there means this is really a ménage a trois, not a two-party party. And there are implications, as we shall see below.
And what does the announcement really mean? Well, the WiMedia Alliance will disappear, for a start. There is due to be a member meeting in Seattle later this month. Whether this is to go ahead or not, I don’t know.

The Bluetooth SIG will continue to develop UWB as the second (and ultimately fastest and lowest power) high speed data channel for Bluetooth. Wi-Fi is the short term solution.

What are the real issues? Well, as I see it, they are these:

Was this really necessary?

Starting with this first, there are two observations. First, WiMedia has been struggling to make UWB stick for some time. Struggling not because there is anything shabby about the underlying technology, but because it has been swimming in a big pond with a lot of other aggressive fish. To take any technology to widespread adoption takes a lot of commitment and a not insignificant amount of money. At the best of times this would have been a big ask, but with UWB taking a long time to get to market, and then that situation colliding headlong with a major global recession, it was quite possible that failure was an option. The WiMedia Alliance needed to align with a major partner, and the Bluetooth SIG was the obvious answer. As I intimated above, talks about a merger have been going on for a long time, and in my honest opinion this announcement is happening now because it was not going to be possible for the WiMedia Alliance to go it alone for much longer.

And secondly, there is the reasoning that both the WiMedia Alliance and the Bluetooth SIG have been stating. There is massive crossover in terms of membership between the two organisations. The Bluetooth SIG’s exec director, talking to me on Friday, suggested that 90% of WiMedia Alliance members were also Bluetooth SIG members. As Foley observed, “At any time, but especially now, it is important to be seen to make your standardisation dollars go as far as you can. “ Fair point. WiMedia president Stephen Wood, who I also talked to on Friday, said that the number of WiMedia member companies that weren’t also Bluetooth SIG members was just seven.

Will it really happen, and if not, why not?

It is safe to assume that both the Bluetooth SIG and the WiMedia boards want this to happen. The announcement wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t. But – the WiMedia Alliance doesn’t own the key UWB IP, it belongs to the members that have developed UWB, so WiMedia can’t just hand it over. And both the Bluetooth SIG and WiMedia Alliance operate under different RAND IPR models. For the Bluetooth/WiMedia merger to go beyond what is effectively a statement of intent, the WiMedia members have to agree to sign over their IP to the Bluetooth SIG. Will they do so? My guess is they probably will. Without the support of the Bluetooth SIG, they are going to have a substantially more difficult job taking the technology and their companies forward. As I’ve stated many times now, these talks have also been going on for a long time, and if any of those WiMedia companies was going to raise a storm over contributing their IP, they would probably have said so by now.

And the most worrying possibility?

That is that the Bluetooth SIG could take UWB in one direction while the Wireless USB bods could go off in another. We could have two different versions of UWB, which can’t be in the best interests of the technology. As the Bluetooth community continues to work towards using UWB as its high speed panacea, the Wireless USB companies will be working down their own road, while not necessarily in complete isolation, but certainly with a different set of goal posts, timelines etc. The words ‘death’ and ‘ knell’ spring to mind.

I mentioned this to both Foley and Wood. Foley admitted that from his organisation’s point of view, this new level of access to the WiMedia spec does provides Bluetooth developers with a new capability and a valuable advantage. “Up until now, we’ve only been able to reference the WiMedia spec, which has meant that any co-development was not necessarily best optimised for Bluetooth. Having the ‘black box’ handed over means we can open the lid and tweak things.” My forebodings of doom were somewhat allayed by both Foley and Wood suggesting that in terms of developments from this point forwards, the semiconductor companies will set the agenda, and that they wouldn’t want to be developing, building and supporting two different versions of UWB. Wood in particular pointed out the industry behemoths – the major handset companies – would not want to be dicing with non-interoperating versions of UWB.

We checked with our nearest semiconductor friends at CSR, and Gillian Ewers, Head of CSR’s Connectivity Marketing, Audio and Connectivity Business Unit commented, "CSR fully supports the merger of the WiMedia Alliance and the Bluetooth SIG which will help drive the integration of UWB technology into the high-speed Bluetooth roadmap. At Mobile World Congress in February, CSR successfully demonstrated its UWB technology transferring files at 200Mbps. CSR continues to support both Wi-Fi and WiMedia UWB variants of high-speed Bluetooth, and UWB remains a part of our Connectivity Centre proposition. CSR's Connectivity Centre applies CSR's Smart Integration techniques to combine multiple technologies and bring benefits to designers and end users."

So, everybody is saying the right things but I will admit that am not 100% convinced that there will be untroubled waters ahead.

One thing is for sure. Whichever way you look at it, what we knew as the WiMedia Alliance is disappearing. What will develop over the coming months remains to be seen, and we will of course feature further developments in Incisor, starting at the end of this month.

So, it is goodbye to WiMedia Alliance. And hello to plain sailing for UWB? Only time will tell.

And if you do want to read the whole, official release, here it is:

WiMedia Announces New Agreements with Bluetooth SIG and Wireless USB
Future specification development to build on UWB’s momentum

SAN RAMON, Calif. – March 16th, 2009 - The WiMedia Alliance announced today it is entering into technology transfer agreements for the WiMedia Ultra-wideband (UWB) specifications. WiMedia will transfer all current and future specifications, including work on future high speed and power optimized implementations, to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), Wireless USB Promoter Group and the USB Implementers Forum. After the successful completion of the technology transfer, marketing and related administrative items, the WiMedia Alliance will cease operations.

“We have reached a point in specification development and product availability where it is more efficient for the related industry groups to oversee future specification development in-house,” said Stephen Wood, president, WiMedia Alliance. “Recent announcements of cost-effective 2nd and 3rd generation products, the availability of high-band products for worldwide use, and UWB chipsets and consumer end products from industry giant Samsung are indicative of the momentum we have gained. Our technology is already embedded in Wireless USB and we have demonstrated working prototypes running the Bluetooth protocol. It now makes sense to streamline the process by passing off future specification development and certification.”

Many of the WiMedia Alliance members are current members of one or both of the other industry groups and so a seamless transition is expected as they continue to move the specifications forward.

“We have been working with the WiMedia Alliance for a number of years and together we share members and a common desire to forward the establishment of the most efficient and cost effective wireless solutions for any environment,” said Michael Foley, Ph.D., executive director, Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). “This is a natural transition and one that will streamline processes, bringing wireless products to market more quickly.”

“The Wireless USB Promoter Group and the USB-IF have worked closely with the WiMedia Alliance since its inception in support of the rapid development and adoption of Wireless USB standards and products,” said Jeff Ravencraft, USB-IF President and Chairman. “This technology transfer will provide our members with a one-stop process for certification and continued productization of Wireless USB.”

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