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Nokia develops low-power Bluetooth hybrid

Wibree technology would enable small devices to talk to each other wirelessly.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--When it comes to wireless technology, Nokia is thinking small.

The Finnish handset maker has developed an offshoot of the popular Bluetooth wireless technology, dubbed Wibree, that utilizes radio waves over relatively short distances to connect devices like PCs, handsets and PDAs.

Wibree uses the same frequency band as Bluetooth and the same hardware, but uses less power to send small streams of information over short distances. As a result, the devices that will be capable of communicating wirelessly are getting smaller.

Wibree would allow devices that use button-cell batteries--like a wristwatch, wireless keyboard or toy--to communicate with other devices via sensors.

It's not a replacement for Bluetooth, which is used widely in wireless phones and headsets, but a complement, said Bob Iannucci, senior vice president and head of Nokia Research Center.

"There are limits in the Bluetooth specification to how far you can drive power down," he said. So an alternative was needed to enable smaller devices with less room for big batteries to talk to each other. Because Wibree is just "an incremental change" from Bluetooth, it's relatively cheap to manufacture devices that support both wireless modes simultaneously.

At the opening of the new Nokia Research Center Palo Alto, Iannucci and other company officials discussed the company's new outward-looking research policy that, with the help of partner universities and companies, aims to drive new mobile technologies like Wibree to the market at a faster pace.

It's an open technology, and Nokia is working with semiconductor makers and others to develop the specification. So far, Broadcom, Nordic Semiconductor, CSR and Epson have licensed Wibree. The first commercial version of the spec will be available in the second quarter of 2007, Nokia said.

The idea is similar to that of the ZigBee Alliance, and its eponymous wireless specification introduced two years ago as a low-power networking standard. ZigBee is supported by Mitsubishi and Motorola, among others.