Monday, November 28, 2016

Why hasn’t ANT+ been crushed by BLE



Recently (okay, like weeks ago) I was asked why hasn’t ANT+ been completely crushed by BLE. Normally I’m asked “which should we support” which I have a better answer for – both. The short is BLE could, but several it seems that around every corner companies fumble it. OVER and OVER and OVER. I asked an industry expert and the world and got some new responses, but mostly the same. The same is BLE is a mess. It’s revising without adoption (4.3, 4.2, 4.1, 4.0).Users don’t understand the sensors can only talk to ONE device. The new one was because…. Polar. I’ll get to that near the end.

History lesson time. Before BLE and ANT+ there was a mess. Proprietary protocols, no standards, analog sensors, or secret standards. If you want to see backlash on standards look at the Ray Maker Kurt Kinetic Smart trainer preview and read the comments. Yes I did a piece here as well.

It was inevitable that someone would step forward and create a simple 2.4GHz protocol to unify things. The group that did found themselves in the right place at the right time with the right technology. It was enough of an innovation to attract the attention of Garmin to purchase the company / protocol – and thus ANT+ was in the hands of a corporation to be locked down and….. Wait, none of that happened. In fact the life blood of the sales of Garmin is other people’s sensors. Look at the mass of sensors in a Garmin. There are 14 (really 12) sensor types in my 520. 3 are proprietary – except that two will become ANT+ standards based on those two Garmin exclusive products thus opening the floor for competition. The last is Shimano shifting -- there is a generic and open shift profile used by SRAM and Campagnolo so that doesn’t even matter anymore.

Smart phones had Bluetooth, with it’s 20 – 40 ma draw. It allowed you to talk hands free to your car and then allowed for terrible BT audio, and then after people complained, decent BT audio. It allowed keyboards and mice and a huge number of other devices to work wirelessly without too much problem. Just remember the pairing code is either 1234 or 0000. But even 20ma was too much for sensors and most companies, The power consumption was too high for a coin cell. Other motivations and some time meant BLE emerged. Or Bluetooth low energy. It was remarkably similar in some ways to ANT+ and yet functioned completely different – but it was really for phones.

So how did we get to this BLE mess of “the next version will crush it”. The iPhone emerged and was, as far as I recall, the first device to have BLE in iPhone 4 (or was it 4s?).Then the overwhelming adoption of Android (complete with flaky BLE that still has teething pains in the splintered Android ecosystem) two things have happened. Now every Mac has BLE and standard iPhone like coding API and Windows is such a mess that if software supports BLE, sometimes it’s only on one type of USB BLE adapter (Shout out to Trainerroad for trying with the Bluegiga BLED112). So Apple leads with the phone for all – except every few iOS versions they take more BLE functionality under it’s control and breaks apps.

ANT+ had been around for years unifying powermeters, heartrate monitors, foot pods, speed, cadence, combined spd/cad and other less known sensors. But guess what. The big money maker for BLE is not sports. And this is where BLE could have killed ANT+ but didn’t because it fumbled. It didn’t write good specs. It’s licencing and certification fees were so high most companies just didn’t implement it correctly or pay them. When they didn’t pay them they couldn’t participate. ANT+ on the other had – well, most middle income americans could afford membership and certification by going without a new TV or the latest macbook. Those same people would have to go without there base model Tesla model S base model to do the same with BT. This has gotten better, but it’s still an order of magnitude greater so still most people ignore it. So people don’t have a simple unified way to check their products in the BLE space.

Around the time BLE was emerging there was one company in the sports world that didn’t adopt ANT+. Polar. Polar had been the king of making watches and heart rate monitors for a long time. It was so common that gym’s used some of the variants of it’s technology and it’s still in use today. There are still heart rate monitors that use Polar’s very old analog low frequency (khz) transmitter. Some gym’s and clubs use them now. However, when things unified under ANT+ they said no. I don’t know why but in hindsight, if they knew how it would hurt their company, I doubt they would have done this. The last few years this has caused so many headaches. A quick search for Polar protocol reveals W.I.N.D, 9khz, 5khz (the actual one), “ownlink”, BLE, Nike proprietary partnership (for Nike Run watches), and then I quit. Polar started talking about BLE before 2010 according to blogs and forum posts. When I used the Polar V800 in 2015 it still did not support any BLE powermeter correctly that wasn’t the Polar Look Pedals. In fact, adoption was so poor with those pedals that you can now get ANT+ pods for them. They were the well engineered powermeter pedal option nobody bought. They worked like no other powermeter – dual BLE connections. Each pedal acted like a single sided unit and the watch put things together. If only one was connected, it doubled it. NONE of this is in the BLE spec. There is an identification bit, but it never describes how it is to be used – AND even in the 1.1 doc it still doesn’t clarify this when I checked. The ANT+ Power device protocol is on version 4.2 which was specifically reved to clarify how to deal with setting crank length. It’s backwards compatibility maintained with most devices – a handful MIGHT have problems, but not many and there are work around.

So we have ANT+, unified, backwards compatibility, cheap to implement, free software suite to ensure compatibility, cheap certification, and highly functional with easy implementation – with one trade off: data security.

We have BLE with fractured certification, inability to financially participate (initially), poor implementation, a fractured phone ecosystem, and Polar and Sunnto (who left ANT+ after Ambit 2 for BLE) who are still having problems getting peoples sensors to pair and work with their devices.

Special officer Doofy reporting for assignment “Crush ANT+.

So where are we today?

ANT+ has had a big uptick for several reasons. Looking at sales of watches, Garmin had a 300% sales increase year over year after the Apple watch due to probably 1) more exposure and 2) people realize the Apple watch was terrible for sports, a really dumb expensive joke, and realized that the Garmin's were trying to be smart watches -- plus Garmin aligned products, created ConnectIQ. And finalizing the FE-C stuff for trainers has been a major boost to Garmin sales, trainer sales, and software subscriptions -- all heavily ANT+ with BLE supplementing for phone communications.

So why hasn't BLE crushed ANT+ with a wild fiery vengeance. Apple / Samsung / HTC / LG are playing a volumes game. Apple doesn't sell 1 million iphones and call it a success anymore, they need to sell about 40 - 50 million a year. A good year is 75 million. Their apple watch has had 12 million sales in 2015 and a 55% drop in 2016 (pre Watch2). Lets say 18 million for a good measure. A good Garmin year is aggregated 400k  (guess based on IDC data) watches with last year but hit 600k in a single quarter. So looking at 3Q16 Apple shipped 1.1 Million while Garmin shipped 600k devices. Garmin’s likely  have high usage, probably 80 - 90%. While apple watches slid (Several news sites, Forbes, engadget, WSJ, etc + Keith-o-algo, rumourmill, grain of salt) that only 30 - 50% of Apple watch wear them, let alone use them for much. So say a 6 - 9 million apple watches, 1 million people using them, some smaller, say 10%, using them for sports = 600k - 900k sports users over 2 years. Garmin hit that for a user base in a single quarter.


With all the BLE regulation, fee's, inability to meet, no idea who actually creates things, people find it easier to just do their own thing. People say “I’ll help who ever implement my proprietary protocol”. NOPE. It takes the same effort to write a protocol as to help one client implement. However, if the client is implementing a standard there are references and samples so the time to implement is quick with less testing. Working one on one means they could implement 3 – 4 standards in the same time to implement one buggy proprietary incomplete standard – that the company will evolve. NOPE. And the inevitable feature creep. The “we have a new api, please implement” followed by “really, that wasn’t on our timeline, we can look at implementing it in 6 – 9 months” followed up with it breaking app compatibility when hardware players roll out that update.

The short is, interoperable -- ANT+ still wins at being friendlier to not creating a silo product and a silo product = death now. So with the 40 - 70 million unit companies not caring about BLE for sports sensors (or looking at it as IOT type devices and not understanding people want THEIR OWN data), sports is an afterthought with a constantly changing specification that isn't really backwards compatible causing older devices to have connection issues and with bad API's for the foreseeable future until Google and Apple handle all of that, ANT+ is just simpler and has a better test market of people who actually use their devices.

Anyway. BLE could win if they'd stop running around with their pants down around their ankles but nobody seems to be trying just yelling “ANT+ will die with BLE version 4.x”. Soon to be version 5.x, then 6.x. All the while ANT+ is collecting 8 cents on every ANT+ device in the world (nRF52 royalty. No idea on nRF51, it’s baked into the Nordic chip price).