Bluetooth co-inventor Sven Mattisson: ‘50bn IoT machines is just the start’

15 Apr 2016

Bluetooth technology still has a long future ahead, especially in the internet of things world of 50bn machines, says Bluetooth co-inventor Sven Mattisson

In 10 or 15 years, there will be 50bn connected machines on Earth – all part of the internet of things world – joined together through technologies like Bluetooth, co-invented by Sven Mattisson two decades ago.

“It’s when I go to the supermarket and the people who work there have these headsets, that’s when it hits me,” said Sven Mattisson, one of the original team of engineers who invented Bluetooth, one of the enabling technologies that will be the glue holding the future internet of things world of connected machines together.

Mattisson, along with a team of engineers at Ericsson that included Tord Wingren and Jaap Haartsen, developed Bluetooth in the mid-1990s. Each and every one of the several billion mobile phones in the world, and countless notebook computers and tablets, rely on Bluetooth to relay information. It will also be key to the whole evolution of wearables, starting with smartwatches, smart clothing and a whole lot more.

‘We decided from the start, ‘let’s plan for success,’ and one of the biggest challenges early on was expanding the range of Bluetooth’

When most people connect their phone to their car’s speaker system or glance at an update on their Apple Watch, the enabling technology, Bluetooth, seems almost invisible, and that’s how Mattisson expects the internet of things world will play out – 50bn machines talking to one another to enhance our lives, but mostly they will be invisible, helping us behind the scenes.

But it’s always fascinating to me how, included in the clutter of apps on our 21st-century smartphones, is an old Viking rune from more than 1,100 years ago that was the epithet of 10th-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth.

How Viking ‘things’ inspired the internet of things

Speaking with Mattisson after he spoke at a recent event at the SFI CONNECT Centre at Tyndall in Cork, he pointed out that the development of Bluetooth was an industry effort that involved collaboration with Intel.

“I began working on Bluetooth in January 1995 and we eventually realised that, to make it happen, it couldn’t be an Ericsson-only effort. At the time, we were making handsets and, if we wanted to borrow radio whitespace, we needed the other end of the cable so to speak, so we teamed up with Intel and formed a special interest group.”

At the time, mobile phones were still out of reach of most people and much of the effort went into enabling the transfer of data between PCs and mobile phones.

“We decided from the start, ‘let’s plan for success,’ and one of the biggest challenges early on was expanding the range of Bluetooth. We decided to just plan to be successful and if we weren’t, no matter.

“But just seeing those people with headsets in supermarkets, for me that’s the wow moment.”

Mattisson, who is still an engineer working at Ericsson Research in Lund in Sweden, also lectures at the University of Lund.

He is hard at work on the next set of engineering challenges that will come with 5G base stations, and it is ironic that the engineering challenges of today are not too dissimilar to Bluetooth in terms of the problem of sending data over longer ranges using less power.

He recalls that, after creating the technology, things were quiet for a few years. “And then it took off like a hockey stick – exponential growth, and it went through the roof. It hasn’t hit saturation point or become obsolete, and I think with the internet of things and new generations like Bluetooth Low Power it will be in use for some time yet.”

According to Mattisson, Bluetooth had the working title MC-Link. “It wasn’t very catchy and we had hired all these branding experts to help come up with a name and no one came up with anything good, and we were under pressure because we were pitching against competing standards.”

As he remembers it, Mattisson retired to the bar for a beer with the head of Intel’s laptop division at the time, Jim Kardach. Kardach was interested in history and started to ask Mattisson about the Vikings, and was particularly interested in the Viking ritual of a Thing or thingstead where Vikings would come together, sort out their differences and cooperate.

“Kardach was intrigued and thought it was a nice operating model that summed up what Bluetooth is all about, enabling machines to sort out their differences and get things done. I recommended a book called The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson and he was so inspired that he bought a copy and, after that, he proposed the internal working name Bluetooth for fun.

“But when the launch date approached and we weren’t happy with what the consultants came up with, and the deadline got closer, we stuck with Bluetooth and Jim drew the runic symbol for Harald Bluetooth. It went down very well and the name stuck.”

Bluetooth and the internet of things

In recent years, the Bluetooth special interest group finalised a new ultra-low power version of Bluetooth envisaged to make the technology ubiquitous.

“Back in 1996, we asked ourselves, ‘how can we push down the power consumption of Bluetooth,’ and we came up with something very close to Bluetooth Low Energy, but devices didn’t have the signal strength to do it then, so it wasn’t established.

‘Not every engineer gets this tremendous opportunity to participate in something that has made an impact like Bluetooth has’

“I think it is great that the standard is still evolving. We focused on the 10-metre wireless cable paradigm, which we thought would be ideal for headsets and computers. But now the internet of things world requires more range, but not necessarily the bandwidth that Wi-Fi requires, so we can go up in range and down in power.

“This is crucial, because Ericsson has a vision of a world of more than 50bn connected devices and, since there are only so many eyes and ears on Earth, it makes sense to have machine-to-machine (M2M) devices.”

Mattisson makes the point that the world will need to be realistic in terms of the capability of technology, especially wireless technology. “Is downloading a hi-def movie in 10 seconds really the answer when streaming works perfectly well?

“Technology will evolve and pose new challenges, such as the data required for wireless augmented reality and VR headsets, and streaming all of this data from the cloud will see the density of traffic increase significantly.

“There will be backhaul and other infrastructural challenges to serve these huge data rates, and a large part of this will have to be mobile.”

This brings us to the subject of 5G and the network society of the future. “Backhaul capacity might have to increase by 1,000 times as the number of devices reaches 50bn. But I think so much of this will be invisible to people, but supporting things that will work without effort.”

The future of Bluetooth

Mattisson and his colleagues are rightly proud that their technology is still in use and likely to be in use for the next decade at least. “It is very rewarding to look back and see that things that were developed 20 years ago are still in use and actually being developed.

“I think Bluetooth addressed the right set of applications to get the ball rolling, and I think the future is definitely lower power, longer range. There are no technologies addressing this situation better than Bluetooth.

“Bluetooth is on the threshold of being the enabling wireless technology for the internet of things. There are other technologies like Wi-Fi and 5G, but it still comes down to power and range and why it makes sense to build on things that have already been built. At some point, it might not be possible to extend the life of Bluetooth, and for something new to come along. But that day is far away.”

Mattisson’s work as an engineer has shifted from handsets to base stations and the infrastructure of the future in terms of what 5G will mean to the networked society.

“I was lucky enough to have been part of it. Not every engineer gets this tremendous opportunity to participate in something that has made an impact like Bluetooth has.

“My unbiased view is that it is good that Bluetooth will play a big role in the internet of things and of course other technologies will play a role too. That’s fine. I’m just glad to see that it is still alive and kicking.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years