Mister Beacon Episode #52

Bluetooth SIG – Mark Powell

September 27, 2017

Bluetooth connects millions of IoT nodes, but who are the people behind the standard, where did it come from, and where is it going? Most importantly, how can we influence or understand it better? Mark Powell, Executive Director of the Bluetooth SIG answers these questions and many more.


  • Steve Statler 00:07

    For us as solution designers and entrepreneurs, it's really important to understand Bluetooth. If we want to know what is and what is not possible. Without Bluetooth, there'd be no iBeacon, no Eddystone, and no physical web, connecting the millions of other building blocks of IoT would be really challenging. We're all familiar with Bluetooth at some level, but many of us are less familiar with the people behind the standard, where it came from, where it's going, and how to influence or understand this thing that is central to what we do. We had the opportunity to speak to mark Powell, Executive Director of the Bluetooth SIG and asked him to answer these questions. And many more, I think you'll find the conversation interesting. Don't forget to subscribe to us on the Mr. Beacon website, YouTube, Facebook, or your favorite audio podcast. So Mark bow, you're the executive director of the SIG, the Bluetooth SIG, thanks for allowing us to have this conversation. I feel like we're kind of going behind the curtain of an amazing brand. And I want to talk to you about the brand, I'd like to talk to you a little bit about the organization that makes things happen and about the standard as well. Bluetooth is just such an incredibly important standard. It's right at the center of the internet of things. But it's been with us for a while how old is the standard?

    Mark Powell 01:32

    While the standard goes back to the must 1998. You're the first announcement, it's 20 years next year. The first announcement was back in 1998. And the spec came out pretty soon after that it was initially a cable replacement technology. And you know the story about connecting your laptop to your mobile phone. Back in the day, of course, there was very little Wi Fi and the only data connection that you could have was from usually from your cell phone or a dial up modem. And so that was a big part of it, but also wireless audio for, you know, having a headset. And you know, that was the, you know, the starting point for the technology. I remember that I was working actually at Motorola at the time and responsible for the first Bluetooth handset that actually did all of those things. So it was kind of cool for me this my career has been on this kind of, you know, loop that here I am now, you know heading an organization where I saw the beginning from outside.

    Steve Statler 02:41

    Yeah, well, I think Bluetooth has got some fascinating history when I was writing the beacon technology book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the ecosystem. I ended up like completely digressing into how the name came about. So can you tell us why why is it called Bluetooth?

    Mark Powell 02:56

    So yes, this is funny. I did a fireside chat with one of the original technology founders.

    Steve Statler 03:05

    I was there. It was a great discussion. That was in London or that was in London, one of the SIG conference.

    Mark Powell 03:11

    Exactly. And I didn't know it until we prepared ahead of time for this Fireside Chat. But I thought it was that that's what they decided. But no, actually what happened was they needed a codename for this kind of an internal codename for this collaboration between multiple companies, multiple warring tribes. And one of the guys I think it was Jim Kardash had been reading about, you know, Scandinavian folklore and so on in history, and read about this Viking leader who had gathered together the tribes, the warring tribes and created one tribe and he was Harold, a blot had blue which means Bluetooth. And so Jim had proposed Okay, let's let's use Bluetooth as the internal codename. And meanwhile, the marketing guys were off trying to figure out what to call this interesting wireless connection technology spec became available. And unfortunately, they drawn blanks with regard to trademark searches and what have you. And there was no name. And so by default, they took the internal code name and by accident, and it stuck. And that's been the name of the organization and the technology ever since.

    Steve Statler 04:31

    I love it. So the engineers take over marketing and they come up with actually what is a really distinctive brand, a memorable name. Give us a sense of where it is in the pantheon of brand names because people may not know what it does, but they they recognize it.

    Mark Powell 04:46

    Yeah, it's very, very high level of recognition from people. Actually, a lot of people do know, I mean, a lot of people will say, Oh, yeah, Bluetooth, you know, it's that's the thing I use for my headset or my wireless speaker. It's pretty The well known high 90s in you know, spontaneous recognition around the world and known for wireless audio, predominantly.

    Steve Statler 05:11

    And I think I mean, it's not like you've I mean, how much money is coke spent on the coke brand a huge amount of money. And I can't imagine that Bluetooth has spent nearly that amount of money. I'm imagining it's got to just because there's so many devices out there. How many devices are there out there?

    Mark Powell 05:27

    That's a tough question. I mean, certainly this year, three and a half billion devices will be shipped by the industry. That's an enormous number. So you, of course, that's we've ramped up to that it's taken some time. But you're right. It's an amazing thing. To think that such a small company, and we are, you know, this year, it's only like $30 million. That will be our turnover this year, a $30 million company can have a brand that is ranked with the brands like Coke, and Apple and so on. That amazing, amazing leverage. And you're right, it's it's all because everybody else who's building the products is using that brand on their products. And these are multi billion dollar companies who are doing this.

    Steve Statler 06:13

    You mentioned Apple, of course, Apple, what is their level in the organization and explain to us what these levels are?

    Mark Powell 06:20

    Sure. So Apple is one of our promoter members right now. That's a fairly recent addition. The promoter members were originally the companies that got together and put that collaboration together that prompted the Bluetooth name the warring tribes, so to speak. And over over time in 20 years, yeah, m&a companies come and go. And, you know, we've ended up with seven, seven companies now, including Apple who are promoting what we call promoting members of the company. They are really the stakeholders in the business. We are not for profit organization. And you know, they are really the key. If they were shareholders, they'd be shareholders, but because we're not set up that way, they're really the key decision makers.

    Steve Statler 07:13

    And so do they make up the board?

    Mark Powell 07:15

    Yeah, so there's a representative appointed by each of those companies on our board. So we have seven board members from them. And then the board every two years, every year, sorry, the board selects two directors from the associate member base. So we have another four. So the board is 1111 individuals. They're not representing their companies. They're really independent directors that that are helping the organization progress.

    Steve Statler 07:46

    What companies I know they're not representing their companies. But what companies have provided the executive directors this year, do the Associate Directors, directors or so?

    Mark Powell 07:55

    So this year, we've added Martin to Ron who's employed by Google and Ruud van Bronkhorst, who's with Philips Lighting.

    Steve Statler 08:03

    Some significant weight behind that. And one of the reasons why I'm asking you about this is that Bluetooth is a very important set of standards, really. And I think it would be useful for people, entrepreneurs who are kind of part of our audience and solution designers to understand how does the sausage get made? So if I was to kind of buttonhole you at one of these events and say, Hey, Mark, I work for Willie Otto, I'd really love you to put something that's specific to our tags in the standard. That's not something that's actually within your gift is that you can't or is it? If I was to buy a few drinks? Could you make it happen?

    Mark Powell 08:43

    Probably not. We could certainly help you understand how to do that. I mean, our job, actually, we have three jobs to do. We talked about one a minute ago, which is promoting the brand and we use a portion of the money we bring in, to evangelize to talk about to develop the brand. But we have two other jobs to do, we have to help and facilitate the member companies to make new specs. So that's really the area you're talking about. And there's a process that people go through they have to submit an idea, the idea has to gather momentum from other members coming to join and co sponsor this. And then the idea is accepted, it moves into feature development and a feature list is created. And then once that feature list is created, it moves into development of the specification architecture first, and then the details of exactly how it will be implemented. So we could certainly help you understand how to do that. The third area that we're responsible for is helping members qualify their products and qualification is a very important thing. Because one of the key things about Bluetooth is this these clever licenses that that you get as part of being being part of the organization, you get a patent license and a trademark license if you qualify your product. And that's very important to help members complete that because we want them all to have those licenses. But it's also important in making sure that the members have tested the products properly. Because one thing that Bluetooth is very well known for is being extremely interoperable. Of course, it's not perfect. And we're making improvements all the time. But it certainly is, as far as I'm aware, the best technology from an interoperability point of view.

    Steve Statler 10:38

    So, I couldn't just do some development in my garage, create this electronics device, kind of get hold of the specs and put something out and stick the logo on it. That's something that I have to go through a process, your, you could do that.

    Mark Powell 10:51

    The we wouldn't want you to do that. And you know, if you're making too much noise in doing that, we'll come after you to make sure that you can be helped to test your product and get a license to the brand properly. Yeah, we want to make sure that people are doing the right things.

    Steve Statler 11:10

    So I'm in my garage, I'm a startup CEO, how much is it going to cost me to get through this system?

    Mark Powell 11:18

    Well, first of all, you you you would want to join the organization and joining doesn't cost any money, you have to sign some agreements. And those agreements effectively allow you to be part of a cross license, a massive cross license, 32,500 member cross license. And that's, that's important. And because it gives you the ability to get access to other people's patterns, so you need to do that. And then when you build your product, each product that you create has to be qualified. And when you qualify, there's a there's a fee fee to be paid. And we actually have a small startup garage program. It's called the innovation incentive program. It's targeted at small companies, and there's a, you know, a nominal fee, I think it's $2,500. That is that needs to be paid to cover our administrative expenses, the regular, you know, regular members are paying much more than that. This is a program to really encourage and help startups.

    Steve Statler 12:24

    Cool. So I think you've given us a flavor for how to engage. And we've talked about kind of the top level, and then there's this sort of entry level, what if I want to get involved in a working group? What if I want to help steer the direction of the standard.

    Mark Powell 12:39

    So there's, we've already talked about two types of members. There's the promoter members, which were the you know, originally originally were the the founders of the organization. And then we were just talking there about what we call adopter members. There's another tier, which is we call our associate tier associate members pay an annual fee. Now for that they get to participate in working groups and committees, and be part of the development of the specification, the development of the architecture. And you know, a subset of our membership chooses to do that. And, you know, they, some of them are extremely active. Some of them just want to see where the technology is, and start working with it building prototypes before it's released, and so on.

    Steve Statler 13:30

    So, so you kind of get this advanced view, because there's, you guys are pretty disciplined for a big organization, you're pretty disciplined about what you talk about, and when you'll talk about it. So it seems like if I'm an associate on the working group, then I get a little more of a view of the future of what's coming. Is that fair?

    Mark Powell 13:46

    Yeah, you probably will see the details, and definitely see the details as it gets later in the process, we will be talking about what's coming. You know, for example, a lot of work going on right now on the next generation of Bluetooth audio. We're not going to share publicly a lot of detail about that right now. But if you wanted to know more, you could become an associate member, and really either see where we're at or for sure have an opportunity to contribute either requirements or actually contribute technical solutions.

    Steve Statler 14:21

    What are the other problem areas that you Bluetooth we can expect Bluetooth to be working on and what else is in the future?

    Mark Powell 14:31

    Well, I mean, it's, you know, we've got these kinds of three connection modes, you know, the original point to point you know, which is the typical audio type, type, you know, situation then we've got one too many where we have, you know, this very well the beacon type situation, almost connection less really, and then many to many and many to many is really the mesh technology that we just released. Beyond that audio, of course, we're going to reinvigorate our audio specification, new use cases, better codecs, better performance. And then things like direction finding high accuracy, direction finding be fantastic for indoor positioning as well.

    Steve Statler 15:21

    I think that's going to be an amazing area, I really think that's going to significantly impact that whole set of enterprises that haven't necessarily seen Bluetooth as being important to them. If we look at asset tracking, at the way I look at it is the world's in a batch mode, we're kind of back in the paper tape and punchcard era of manufacturing and warehouse management, you send someone out with a barcode scanner, or even an RFID reader, and they're getting an old immediately that snapshots are out of date. And I think the opportunity with what you guys are doing is to take that into the world of real time where manufacturers know where every pallet is, every person, every tool, and that's really going to be quite profound in terms of the number of devices and its impact on on the way we do business in another area that's quite far removed from audio headsets and, and that sort of thing. So I mean, what is the breadth of Bluetooth, because people know about the headsets? What's give us a sense of just all the things that are going on in terms of the number of groups and, and fill in any gaps in terms of major areas that are being worked on church, a lot of busy stuff happening?

    Mark Powell 16:38

    Absolutely. I mean, we have one group that focuses on kind of the core technology, the, you know, the the channels, the the, the pieces, the bits and pieces of the bits and bobs are the pieces that applications will use. And so that that one group is focused on enabling new new ways of doing things. Then above that, we have groups that are building particular application technology. So there's a hearing aid working group that's working on hearing aid applications for for Bluetooth. There's an audio and telephony working group that's working on the existing technology, enhancing the existing technology for wireless audio. And another group that's looking at the future of wireless audio, we have a group that's focused on mesh, and mesh applications and, and a group that's focused on the sports and fitness area, health care area. So there's, there's groups that are focused on different industries and different different segments. And I'm honestly, within each one, there's just so many different verticals that the technology can be applied into.

    Steve Statler 17:56

    Well, I think by any measure, Bluetooth has been incredibly successful. So congratulations on leading that organization. We really appreciate you being on the podcast.

    Mark Powell 18:06

    Thank you very much.

    Steve Statler 18:07

    All right. So I'm going to ask you about the music. But why is the Bluetooth SIG based in Seattle, because we're in Seattle, or in Kirkland, to be precise.

    Mark Powell 18:26

    I think it's a long story. I've only been with the SIG for five years. Originally, the organization when it was established as an organization in the early 2000s. Was in Kansas City, and then move to Bellevue. And then to Kirkland. I think it's one of those wireless expertise areas, I would say around the world. You know, motor carriers. Yeah, exactly. So yeah. T Mobile back in the day. VoiceStream and Western Wireless. Right. Exactly, exactly.

    Steve Statler 19:12

    Okay. So most important question, certainly most challenging question, what are the three songs that you would take on a trip to Mars?

    Mark Powell 19:19

    So I thank you for letting me think about that in advance. So yeah, I have three. So the first I would say is No More Heroes by The Stranglers. And the reason why is because when I was much younger, I was playing in bands, and this was a song one of the bands I played in, played regularly. And so it's always good to think about you know, wow, okay, yes, used to play that song. So, yes, No More Heroes by The Stranglers. Number one, number two would have to be my kind of go to meditate. Asian kind of calm down song which is future love Paradise by seal from his first album, I always find that particular song very calming and in a way spiritual. He's a very spiritual kind of guy. So that's, that's number two. Number three is funny. I guess it's the Mustang Sally. Maybe not the Wilson Pickett version. But the commitment. I don't know if you know them is one of my favorite movies. And so the reason for that is whenever I have the misfortune to be in a karaoke bar, that will be my go to karaoke song because I think I know all the words.

    Steve Statler 20:41

    All right, so a few good memories. Maybe a little blurry but Exactly. Very cool. Well, thanks for sharing that.

    Mark Powell 20:49

    No worries.