Blue’s man

The technical director of Cambridge Silicon Radio is a pioneer of Bluetooth, the wireless technology now bringing us a range of cable-free devices. Andrew Lee reports.

If you want to bump into James Collier, get yourself along to an Unplug Fest, where you will find him connecting with like-minded souls.

Collier’s attendance at the thrice-yearly Unplug Fests – one each in Europe, the US and Asia – is not, as it may sound, an excuse to indulge some obscure hobby. An Unplug Fest is a gathering of engineers specialising in Bluetooth, the system that promises to liberate us from the tyranny of the tangled wire and trailing cable by connecting a host of everyday devices using radio waves.

Attending such events is a key part of Collier’s work as technical director of Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), a specialist in Bluetooth microchips, which he co-founded five years ago and has helped make into one of the world’s leaders in short-range Bluetooth radio networking technology.

‘It’s a chance for the engineers to lock the marketing guys outside and make sure that everything interoperates,’ said Collier.

Unplug Fests (the next will be in California next month) may sound frivolous, but according to Collier they are playing a serious role in determining whether Bluetooth stands or falls as a mass-market technology.

The events allow a Scandinavian mobile phone company, a Japanese games console manufacturer and a US designer of a hands-free kit to check that their devices, some of which will be competing against each other on the open market, really can talk to each other via Bluetooth.

This is vital, because the worst thing that could happen, as everyone involved with Bluetooth is well aware, is for the paying public to be confronted with a list of ‘ifs and buts’ when they buy electronic devices equipped with the technology.

Unplug Fests also symbolise a unique development process that has emphasised co-operation more than competition.

‘They have been a remarkable success,’ said Collier. ‘What you have there is a common interest in getting things right, which beats mistrust.’

This co-operative spirit extends beyond Unplug Fests (among the engineers, at least). ‘We had some people in a competitor’s premises just last week,’ said Collier. ‘Once again, it’s about engineers working with engineers, with the marketing guys locked out. Bluetooth has been a kind of experiment to see if a more co-operative approach can succeed. It has not been totally without its problems, but it has been on the whole.’

Bluetooth has received its fair share of hype, epitomised by the image of the ‘smart fridge’ that knows you are running low on cheese and texts you to warn of this impending domestic crisis.

‘I’m not inclined to go on about how it is going to revolutionise your fridge,’ said Collier, who is more than happy to allow the benefits of the technology to speak for themselves.

A topical example is the hands-free headset that can connect wirelessly to the in-car mobile phone cradle thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth, allowing drivers to talk legally and safely.

CSR makes about 80 per cent of the Bluetooth chips in mobile headsets, and is experiencing something of a boom in demand.

Collier loves to see Bluetooth headsets, because they are the sort of simple, eminently practical application the technology was made for.

So with headsets proliferating, and advertising for Bluetooth-enabled gaming consoles appearing on TV, can Bluetooth now be considered a ‘mature’ technology?

The answer is a cautious yes. Overall, Collier is content that technically Bluetooth is where it needs to be. ‘It does what it needs to do and does it well,’ he said.

Collier and his colleagues also have to take account of the fact that they are not the only ones using the 2.4 GHz radio frequency band on which the technology operates.

Most notably, the longer-range 802.11 wireless standard, known as wi-fi, will share the same band, raising its own technical considerations – it would be disastrous if the two interfered with each other. CSR and other Bluetooth specialists are working with the wi-fi world to ensure a peaceful co-existence. ‘Bluetooth wants to be a good neighbour,’ said Collier.

But while he is confident about the ability of Bluetooth to cope with the rigours of mass-market use, Collier claimed some doubts remain over its wireless cousin.

‘We can literally have 300 Bluetooth devices operating in one room and they all work,’ he said. ‘What has not been tested is a widespread roll-out, for example in a block of flats where everyone is using 802.11, none of them co-ordinated.’

Fortunately for Collier, 802.11 is not his problem. His concern is Bluetooth, and CSR’s role at a time when the technology stands on the brink of the mass-market big time.

Collier confirmed that CSR is now spending more time working with a host of product designers to help them Bluetooth-enable their devices.

But the UK company cannot afford to take its eye off the ball. ‘A lot of effort is still needed in the area of the base technology. Every year we have got to be cheaper, smaller and offer better power consumption.’

Collier founded CSR in 1998 with two fellow veterans of the wireless technology industry. From the early 1990s, it had been clear to Collier and his colleagues that the hunt was on for a radio technology that would cut the need for cabling.

‘The problem was that everybody wanted a slightly different standard,’ said Collier, adding that engineers faced the prospect of designing, designing and designing again to satisfy the multifarious needs of their customers.

When Bluetooth emerged in the late 1990s from the Scandinavian mobile phone industry, its potential as a common technical standard that could be rolled out across a vast range of different sectors was clear to him.CSR was formed with nine people, nailed its colours firmly to the Bluetooth mast and set about designing a single chip that could be used to put the technology inside mass-market electronics devices with the minimum of cost and effort.

It succeeded, and five years later its user list is a roll-call of the world’s electronics, telecoms and IT giants – Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Toshiba, NEC, Dell and Samsung, to name but a few.

CSR has also attracted tens of millions of dollars of investment from the likes of Compaq and Intel.

Not that the ride has been totally smooth. Collier admits that the recession that swept through the semiconductor industry two years ago was a setback, delaying investment in new technologies as the industry re-grouped and waited for the upturn.

With hindsight, however, he believes the recession may have even been a blessing in disguise, giving the fledgling Bluetooth sector the chance to test and test again. ‘Whether we could have done the engineering required back then I don’t know. We can now.’

For Collier, the sign that the technology he has helped nurture really is taking flight comes through everyday experience.

‘At CSR we’ve all got our anecdotes now – the cab driver with the headset, or the guy on the train using Bluetooth to connect his phone to his laptop. We can see it being used every day.’