After being on the fence for several years about what technology to use for wireless home control, we're about to test our hypothesis that Z-Wave--despite its lack of an open standard--has the market momentum.
We have been following Zigbee and Z-Wave, both "next generation" wireless home control (WHC) technologies, for several years. They're both low-speed wireless mesh networking technologies designed to connect large numbers of simple devices like light switches, smoke detectors, thermostats, and more.
While home networking needs speed and more speed, home control needs rock solid reliability. Home control systems typically operate at relatively low speeds--Z-Wave chips operate at 9.6 and 40 kilobits per second. A major application for these new home control systems is "battery to battery networks"--interconnecting battery-powered devices. This puts a high premium on very low power consumption so that devices like motion sensors and smoke detectors can last for years without changing batteries. Since the devices being controlled are relatively inexpensive, the control systems should add only a small price increment if they are to be successful commercially.
At CES this year, we again spent some time with both the Zigbee and Z-Wave groups. Zigbee has made good progress with industrial and power utility applications. But Z-Wave seems to be approaching critical mass in the consumer market.
At CES, we met at the Z-Wave booth with Mark Walters, Zensys Vice President of Alliances and chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance. Mark said Zensys has put a lot of effort into creating an ecosystem for its chips. Founded in early 2005, the alliance now includes more than 170 member companies, "100 of which are seriously developing hardware." The alliance provides tools to certify devices for interoperability and logo display; organizes joint efforts at trade shows such as CES; and publicizes the technology and the products.
There are now more than 225 Z-Wave certified products. The Products section on the Alliance website shows many of these, including lighting and application controls, wireless remote controls for audio/video, motorized shades and projection screens, and more.
Many Z-Wave Alliance members had displays in the Z-Wave booth. Kim Scott, Director, Global Wireless, showed us Intermatic's two families of Z-Wave products. HomeSettings is for the retail "do it yourself" (DIY) market, while InTouch is for professional installers. Both include an extensive line of light switches, wall modules, controllers and more.
Brad Kayton, founder and COO of 4HomeMedia, demonstrated his company's software platform for "home control services." The company was formed to bring Web Services to CE products. Designed to operate on home gateways, their system is targeted as a value-added service for broadband service providers such as telephone companies and cable operators. Their initial suite of applications includes home monitoring, media & entertainment management, home health, and energy management.
We met separately with Leslie Kirchman, Director of Marketing at Actiontec, a leading player in DSL and IPTV home gateways. We had noticed one of Actiontec's gateways as the hardware platform for 4HomeMedia's demonstrations, so we weren't surprised when Actiontec showed us their new zControl home management system. The zControl™ series of home automation gateways is designed to centrally manage household electronics such as lights, thermostats and motion detectors. zControl is designed to allow users to control all devices through a common interface at home as well as remotely by PC, mobile phone or Internet-enabled TV.
After we returned home, we visited the Z-Wave Alliance website and saw many more products from companies like Leviton, Monster Cable, Wayne-Dalton, and Advanced Control Technologies. We were impressed with how many companies already offer full lines of Z-Wave devices.
Unlike Z-Wave, Zigbee is based on an open standard. One of several wireless "personal area networking" (PAN) standards published by the IEEE, IEEE 802.15.4 is specifically intended to provide "a low data rate solution with multi-month to multi-year battery life and very low complexity." The first standard was published in 2003, and was superseded by an updated standard in 2006.
At CES, we again met with Bob Heile, who is both Chairman of the ZigBee Alliance and chair of IEEE 802.15, the IEEE working group on wireless personal-area networks. The Zigbee Alliance now has more than 200 members, including major consumer electronics companies like Philips and Samsung. The Alliance's initial markets (according to their Web site) are Energy Management and Efficiency, Home Automation, Building Automation and Industrial Automation.
The Zigbee Alliance focus on the "home area network" (HAN) has gotten the attention of power utilities, which plan to use Zigbee to connect electric meters outside the home with devices like thermostats mounted inside (see our recent article on the UPLC conference). Bob said applications such as utility meter reading and demand management need "bullet proof security" and "multiple sources". He pointed out that many semiconductor companies--including TI, Freescale, STMicroelectionics--supply Zigbee-compatible chips, and there are multiple sources of software suites and other tools.
The alliance has been more successful in industrial and commercial applications than in home control. A glance at the "Products & Certification" pages on the alliance website shows far more chips and other building blocks than products designed for home applications.
Our Home Control Decision
We've used X10 to control the lighting in our house for more than fifteen years. While it works most of the time, devices often stop working when a bulb burns out, and sometimes the entire system fails mysteriously -- we found all of our plant lights off when we returned from a recent trip and it took more than a week to get them working properly again.
So we've been searching for a replacement that does everything we now do with X10, but is much less prone to failure and provides better integration with other applications. We believe that Mark Walters of Zensys is right when he says there four criteria a home control technology has to meet in order to be a success in the market--it needs to be inexpensive, interoperable, have multi-vendor support and be widely distributed. We'd add two other criteria--it has to work reliably and be easy to set up.
The fact that Zigbee is based on an IEEE standard and Z-Wave is proprietary has given us pause--we are concerned about Z-Wave's dependence on one chip maker. This isn't the first time we've seen a situation like this. In CES 2005--The Right Time for Standards we examined three other cases where one chip maker chose to move "ahead of existing standards efforts, trying to get products to market before standards are set in stone and incumbent semiconductor companies can take advantage of their market leverage."
In most cases, the standards-based approach attracts the critical mass of players to its ecosystem, and eventually wins in the market. However, proprietary technology from a single vendor can sometimes obtain enough share in major markets to attract major silicon suppliers, making it available from multiple sources. MoCA, first promulgated by Entropic and now being supported by Broadcom and Conexant, is an example.
Both Z-Wave and Zigbee have lined up an impressive set of market players. But a look at their alliance websites shows that while most of the players in the Zigbee camp make chips and other building blocks, Z-Wave has already attracted a critical mass of players making end-user products.
We came away from CES with the sense that Z-Wave has the momentum in the home market. We're getting ready to plan our switch from X10 to Z-Wave. We'll keep you posted.
( www.zen-sys.com ) ( www.zwavealliance.org ) ( www.intermatic.com ) ( www.4homemedia.com ) ( www.actiontec.com ) ( www.leviton.com ) ( www.monstercable.com ) ( www.wayne-dalton.com ) ( www.act-solutions.com ) ( www.ieee802.org/15/pub/TG4.html ) ( www.zigbee.org ) ( www.mocalliance.org )