Zigbee and Z-wave are out. Broadcom’s new chips bet on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for IoT

WiFi signal

There is nothing that hardware nerds love than a good old-fashioned standards battle. LTE versus WiMAX, VHS versus Betamax, Ethernet versus InfiniBand … the list goes on. The internet of things is another battleground with different factions fighting over protocols for sending wireless signals, sending data between points, security and a variety of other standards. But when it comes to the wireless technology of choice for connecting consumer gadgets, Broadcom has chosen its winners: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Brian Bedrosian, Broadcom’s Senior Director, Embedded Wireless and Jeff Baer, Broadcom’s Business Development Director, Embedded Wireless — both in Broadcom’s Wireless Connectivity Combo Group — explained their thinking to me on a call related to the launch of a new all-in-one Wi-Fi module that contains a Wi-Fi radio and a microcontroller that will handle all the on-boarding of the device and communication to the network.

From Broadcom’s perspective, other protocols are either closed or the standard is so open to interpretation (Zigbee) that it might as well be closed. For example, there’s no guarantee that Zigbee devices will work with other Zigbee devices, and for Z-Wave, the chips are more expensive. Plus, neither Zigbee or Z-Wave are regulars in the smartphone radio stack. I’ve discussed this with the CEO of Securifi, the maker of the Almond + router, on one of my podcasts, if you want to learn more.

Thus, Broadcom has made its bets on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (and Bluetooth Low Energy). That means we can expect more modules from Broadcom that make it easier to build connected devices, something the Bluetooth Special Interest Group is also pushing hard. For example, the latest chip, the BCM4390, is designed with a Wi-Fi radio and a communications processor so the whole package can go into existing devices like washing machines or dishwashers without requiring a separate microcontrollers to handle the additional burden of networking. That means devices can be retro-fitted for connectivity without swapping out other parts.

Broadcom was coy on the subject, but I imagine a Bluetooth and a Bluetooth Low Energy module that can handle the networking on-boarding isn’t too far behind. It did launch a Bluetooth system on a chip today as well, that offers much lower power consumption so people can go a year without needing to replace the battery in connected device like a pedometer or door lock. And by the way, this isn’t all just to boost the consumer experience. As more and more businesses are realizing, adding connectivity can help them, even if that connectivity isn’t exposed to consumers through fancy apps or whiz-bang refrigerators that tell you when the milk is expired.

Baer explained that businesses want connectivity so they can track data on how products are used, or update features over the air. So even if the microwave doesn’t need an app, it may need Wi-Fi. And Broadcom really wants to sell that Wi-Fi chip.

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