ULP Wireless Update

ULP wireless pioneer’s past builds toward an IoT future

ULP wireless pioneer’s past builds toward an IoT future

The Nordic-powered Suunto t6 sportswatch was the world's first wireless fitness wearable

After a decade developing Bluetooth low energy technology, three senior Nordic executives tell how the company is using that experience to build its next platform, ultra low power wireless connectivity for the IoT

Bluetooth low energy technology’s success looks like it was always assured. But ten years ago, no one could be certain if the fledgling technology would catch on. A similar situation is now emerging with the IoT.


“The IoT is a race to win the battle of the Cloud-connected socket,” says Svein-Egil Nielsen, the company’s CTO. “Wiring is expensive to install and maintain so the sockets will be wireless. Success will depend on how many things a device can connect to and how easily and cost-effectively it can do that. Standards aid both those factors, that’s why standards will be fundamental to the IoT.


“But nobody knows which of several wireless standards is going to dominate. Nordic is developing what it thinks will be a game-changing IoT technology based on Bluetooth low energy wireless, but we’re not naïve or arrogant enough to think that automatically qualifies us to hit a home run. Sony, for example, thought a technically superior Betamax would win over VHS, but we know how that one played out.


“Nobody really knew if Bluetooth low energy was a viable technology in its early days either,” reflects Nielsen, who apart from his senior role with Nordic was also Chair of the Bluetooth SIG from 2011 to 2013. “Before Bluetooth low energy, ‘classic’ Bluetooth had only proven itself in wireless data transfer between mobile devices, audio, and [less well known] wireless payment terminals used in retail. There were no guarantees for the low energy version.”


However, according to Geir Langeland, Nordic’s Director of Sales & Marketing, one thing the company was confident about was that a low energy form of Bluetooth would be based on an ultra low power [ULP] wireless technology similar to that which Nordic had pioneered in the early 2000s. Nordic’s technology consumed little power because the radio devices slept for most of the time - waking up very quickly to send data, and returning to sleep as soon as possible. Such techniques allowed the company’s technology to operate for months from batteries as small as the coin cells found in watches, while also offering good bandwidth.


“Long experience gave Nordic a technical and commercial edge in the ULP sector,” says Langeland. “So we made the decision to promote Bluetooth low energy technology like crazy, while investing heavily in R&D to ensure the products would lead their class. The result of this ambitious program was the first commercial Bluetooth low energy chip in 2010 [nRF8001], intensive developer training, and continuously evangelizing to the world how great Bluetooth low energy was for enabling battery-powered wireless applications that weren’t previously viable.”


Such an ambitious strategy wasn’t easy for a small, relatively unknown Norwegian company with a track record solely in proprietary ULP wireless technology to pull off.


“It did feel like the established Bluetooth technology semiconductor players dismissively laughed at our aspirations to break into the sector,” recalls Thomas Embla Bonnerud, Nordic’s Director of Product Management. “But they’re not laughing now.”


“Bluetooth low energy didn’t play out well for the established Bluetooth players,” continues Svein-Egil Nielsen. “For example, Broadcom sold its ULP wireless business and CSR was acquired. These were worthy competitors just two or three years ago, but they couldn’t make their Bluetooth low energy products successful.”


Nielsen believes that Nordic’s success is down to a lack of the large company inflexibility that plagued its competitors. “Big firms were focused on blue-chip accounts; a mistake when much of the activity in ULP wireless technology was in small companies and start-ups. He cites the example of a two- man company that nobody but Nordic took seriously. Today that company is the world’s most successful wearables firm.


A common history

Many industry observers make the mistake of thinking that the Internet of Things (IoT) is a new sector. But Nordic has been connecting ‘things’ to the Internet for well over a decade.


For example, developed with Nordic from 2002, and officially launched in 2004, the nRF2401A-based t6 sportswatch from Finnish company Suunto was the world’s first wearable. It used the ANT RF software protocol developed by Canadian company, Dynastream, that at the time only ran on Nordic chips. The venture was the first of many successful joint design-wins with ANT.


The Suunto sportswatch was also Nordic’s second most significant customer application design win after Logitech—the Swiss-based personal peripherals company—specified Nordic’s ULP proprietary wireless technology into its keyboards and mice in 2003. This was shortly after CEO Svenn-Tore Larsen joined the company and made the strategic decision to transform Nordic from a consultancy- based business into a standard components-based one specializing in ULP wireless.


“Logitech was the customer that put Nordic Semiconductor on the map,” explains Geir Langeland. “It gave us crucial scale and credibility in our start-up days and supported serious investment in the company and its ULP technology from thereon.”


The partnership with Logitech remains strong to this day with Nordic shipping its billionth ULP wireless chip in December 2014, and that billionth device going to Logitech for use in a commercial product.


The early experience with wireless desktop peripherals was more valuable for building an IoT platform than it might first appear.


“The needs of wireless keyboards and mice talking to a computer dongle, and wireless sportswatches talking to various wireless peripherals are identical to today’s wearables,” explains Thomas Embla Bonnerud. “Wearables have always been a core market for Nordic and continue to be so. All our chips have been designed for wearable applications and no company in the world has more experience of doing this than us.”


The significance of all this, says Bonnerud, is that the Suunto t6, although primitive by today’s standards, embodied all the basic design elements of the IoT. “The t6 started the IoT race for Nordic,” he says. “As such, the IoT is not new to us, and we have now been working on IoT technology for 15 years.”


More than just great products

Semiconductor development always travels in one direction: greater performance with reduced size and power consumption. Nordic has followed this path with its successive ULP chip generations. But Bonnerud points out that there’s much more to a successful semiconductor company than hardware and software enhancements.


“I always believed the difference between Nordic and its competitors was leadership and the ability to inspire and surprise developers,” he notes.


Bonnerud cites the example of Nordic’s nRF51 Series. Apart from class-leading hardware, the device was the first Bluetooth low energy System-on-Chip to separate the application code from the RF protocol software (or ‘stack’). This allowed developers with little RF expertise to port their code to the chip using Nordic’s development tools with no risk of corrupting the elegantly-engineered Bluetooth low energy stack.


“Nordic spent millions in R&D dollars to launch the nRF51 Series with its unique separated software and, in addition to many happy customers, we also ensured our competitors had to scrap all their existing product plans, some of which must have been very advanced, and spend millions of dollars over the next several years simply to catch up with what we’d done,” says Bonnerud.


“We extended our leadership with the nRF52 Series, a Bluetooth low energy single- chip solution that offers such high levels of processing power combined with ultra low power consumption that some customers have specified the chip as the main processor for their product and almost see the Bluetooth low energy technology as a bonus. And that’s not to mention industry-first functionality such as NFC ‘Touch-to-Pair’.”


SoCs like the nRF51 and nRF52 Series, together with design tools and Software Development Kits (SDKs), are already allowing enterprising developers to come up with applications that utilize IPv6 over Bluetooth low energy - thus allowing sensors to connect directly to the Internet without the need of sophisticated and expensive gateways. Such applications are building the foundations of the IoT.


It’s a development not missed by Svein-Egil Nielsen: “ULP wireless and powerful embedded processors will be the main drivers of the IoT,” he says. “But to make the most of the hardware, developers need affordable, easy wireless connectivity that works with existing infrastructure and standards, plus design tools that are simple enough not to place limits on creativity and innovation. And we don’t want to add any complications such as making customers sign non-disclosure agreements or go through lengthy registration procedures.”


But the support doesn’t stop there: “I don’t think there’s a ULP wireless semiconductor company in the world that has more ULP wireless engineers than Nordic, and no other company is putting the revenue we’re putting into developing the ‘perfect’ IoT solution,” explains Nielsen.


“Proof of this will come from next year when you can expect to see a ‘tsunami’ of Nordic Bluetooth low energy and IoT products designed to for every major market and to meet every major application.”


Geir Langeland summarizes where all of Nordic’s hard work is heading: “If you want to see how the IoT market will impact the world, the closest parallel right now is the shift to driverless technology in the automotive industry,” he says. “Every major carmaker in the world is hedging their bets, because they know the impact of such a shift would consolidate the car, taxi, and transportation industries into one where anybody can just rent a car when they need it for a fraction of the cost of owning one and with none of the hassle.


“Factor in the possibility of highway speed limits being abolished, traffic jams eliminated, and fatal road traffic accidents slashed, and it’s impossible to see why anyone would want to stop this revolution. The IoT is going to offer very similar disruptive benefits, but across a much broader range of industries.”