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Wireless Technologies

WiFi Direct v Bluetooth: Which Will Win?

WiFi technology has come a long way since 1997 and the launch of the first 802.11 standard. That was the year Netflix was launched, the Facebook.com domain first went live and JK Rowling published her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While Rowling, Netflix and Facebook would go on to become leaders in their fields, WiFi’s rise to the top has not been without its challenges. Yet WiFi as a networking technology has produced a little magic of its own and is now unparalleled, pushing boundaries and not just in internet networking. WiFi Direct, a peer-to-peer version of the technology, has been gaining considerable ground in the last 12 months, to the extent that it is on a potential collision course with Bluetooth.

Philip Solis, research director at ABI Research, claims that 1.1 billion products with WiFi Direct installed have shipped this year. The list includes (according to the WiFi Alliance’s certified products list) LCD TVs from Sharp, smartphones from Samsung and Lenovo, and tablets from Huawei, Fujitsu and Dell. The aim? To produce a range of devices that can connect directly to each other to print, share, sync and display.

It sounds familiar. Isn’t that what Bluetooth was supposed to do?

“WiFi Direct is competing with Bluetooth Low Energy, for sure. They both want to stake out their territory in the massive Internet of Things space that everyone is drooling over,” comments Vince Holton, founder and editor of wireless industry monthly newspaper Incisor Magazine. Holton concedes that due to having a head-start in terms of market penetration and its lower power consumption, “Bluetooth is likely to achieve better penetration in the IoT and M2M sectors.”

The installed base argument is compelling. Solis at ABI Research says that this year 2.7 billion products with Bluetooth have been shipped. Yet history has proven that having a dominant market position is not necessarily an advantage, at least in the long term. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as “the disadvantage of advantage” in his book David and Goliath.

The low-power argument, however, is difficult to beat. Bluetooth broke the mould on low-power RF radio and has thrived as a result. Now Bluetooth Smart has taken that a stage further, reducing power in some instances by over a half. But what does this mean in real terms? That Bluetooth is in fact immovable as the preferred short range wireless technology of choice? Where does that leave WiFi Direct?

Understandably, WiFi Alliance VP of marketing Kelly Davis-Felner sees a bright future for WiFi Direct, referring to it as “indispensable for device vendors, developers and end users”. When asked if WiFi Direct threatened Bluetooth, she replies:

“WiFi Direct has many advantages including the fact that it has been widely adopted and already delivers peer-to-peer connectivity in billions of devices.”

But so does Bluetooth.

“Enhancements to the programme will only continue to make the technology more useful for vendors, developers, and end-users,” she adds, “and WiFi’s legacy of interoperability makes the technology a clear choice for developers.”

What about the IoT? That’s surely the new battleground?

“WiFi is an essential technology for the Internet of Things and is an obvious choice because of its ubiquity in homes and devices,” adds Davis-Felner. “In particular, users can monitor and control WiFi Internet of Everything (IoE) devices using the peer-to-peer capability of WiFi Direct if the internet is inaccessible, or if the home’s WiFi router is down. WiFi Direct can connect IoE devices to each other as well to supplement user and cloud connectivity. Additionally, WiFi Direct’s new application service platform will help propel further innovation leveraging WiFi in the Internet of Things.”

So what does the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) think? Is WiFi Direct a threat, an ally or just a healthy rival?

“What WiFi Direct is really good at is being a ‘fat’ pipe for large data files such as video,” comments Suke Jawanda, CMO at Bluetooth SIG. “One of the best examples of this is ‘mirror casting’ – where you can share the video content from your tablet or phone onto compatible TVs. The two challenges with WiFi however, are power and device discovery. WiFi Direct uses orders of magnitude more power for its radio than Bluetooth Smart. In addition, connecting or pairing two devices can be challenging with WiFi when compared with Bluetooth Smart since WiFi doesn’t really have a concept of device discovery like Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart.”

Ouch.  

In truth though, WiFi Direct does have a decent device (and service) discovery process so that’s probably not fair but the power question is one that is difficult to keep batting back. Jawanda is, if nothing else, persuasive.

“Bluetooth Smart is really, really fast and performant; this is why it’s so power thrifty,” he says. “It takes the Bluetooth Smart radio three milliseconds to wake up, send its data and go back to sleep, where it’s not drawing power. A WiFi radio may take hundreds of milliseconds. That means the radio is on longer and that’s what’s sucking down all the power. Secondly, this ‘fast twitch’ operating is what makes Bluetooth Smart so performant as data is sent near-instantaneously.”

What does this mean for the IoT? Is Bluetooth the natural choice to get devices talking to each other?

“Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart are being embedded in almost anything you can think of, especially things where power efficiency and near real-time performance matters,” adds Jawana. “For example, wearables, pens, pencils, padlocks, toothbrushes, basketballs, tennis racquets, light bulbs, beacons, and even furniture that can all last for years. They ‘just work’ for the end-user [and can] easily pair and interoperate with the phone or tablet I already have. The UX [user experience] can be through the companion app (for example, Fitbit) itself.”

The “just work” bit is important here and one that both camps will surely play on. The differences are technical and both claim a first-to market of sorts, but we know from experience that first to market is not always best. It doesn’t always win, it just helps educate and create the market to the possibilities. Is this where we are with peer-to-peer wireless now?

And what of the future? ABI Research predicts that both technologies at least have a future with 4.2 billion Bluetooth products expected to ship in 2019 compared to 3.4 billion WiFi Direct products.

Peter Christy, networking research director at 451 Research, claims that he wouldn’t expect the demise of Bluetooth anytime soon, if ever. However, he appends a warning:

“This kind of technology moves at a glacial pace,” he says. “Look at how long it took NFC to sort of take off with incorporation finally in the iPhone 6.”

He has a point. We shouldn’t be expecting anything to be resolved before Christmas… Christmas 2020.

“There is a chicken-and-egg technology adoption problem with things like this,” adds Christy. “How do you get enough devices to justify putting it in platforms? Until it exists in platforms, why would you build a device for it? It’s unlikely that the Bluetooth uses like headsets will convert to WiFi Direct anytime soon, especially if the power consumption is higher. And then there are new Bluetooth uses like the iBeacon. On the other hand, the fewer radios you need the better.”

That’s true, which is why perhaps the market will increasingly look to the device manufacturers such as Apple, with its combined solution, AirDrop. This is where Jawanda believes WiFi Direct and Bluetooth can become allies, using the strengths of each technology to enable the smoothest user experience on wireless connectivity and data transfer.

AirDrop, he explains, uses Bluetooth Smart to scan and find other Bluetooth devices but if the file is large the device will wake-up the WiFi radio to use that fatter pipe to transfer the data – a sort of wireless tag team to take on all devices and data sizes.

It makes some sense, but it does seem like a short-term option, something to placate rather than to really drive the IoT. And just to throw something else into the mix, Samsung announced in October it had wireless transferred files at 575 megabytes per second on the unlicensed 60GHz WiGig network. It seems this wireless bun-fight for the IoT is just warming up.

 

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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