ZigBee wants to be the Bluetooth of the internet of things. Too bad everyone hates it.

connected house abstract copy

Poor ZigBee. As a wireless standard, it has long faced an identity crisis that pitted it against Wi-Fi in the home and proprietary standards or Bluetooth for low-data rates. But as companies such as Comcast embrace the connected home and thanks to an acquisition last year, the standard could get its day in the sun and a place in the home.

Meet ZigBee, a confused standard

ZigBee is designed to carry small amounts of data over a mid-range distance and consume very little power. It’s also a mesh networking standard so the sensors can carry other data along to the hub. Its closest analog is the proprietary Z-wave standard that comes on chips made by Sigma Designs.

If you own a Nest thermostat, Comcast’s recent router or a Hue lightbulb you have ZigBee chips inside your home already.

A ZigBee outlet.

A ZigBee outlet.

But as those devices illustrate, ZigBee has been plagued by interoperability problems. The standard isn’t just the wireless transport mechanism, but a layer of software on top that can create profiles that interfere with different versions of ZigBee profiles. That means that unlike Wi-Fi, two devices that have ZigBee chips might not interoperate.

The ZigBee Alliance is working on this. In an interview last month with Alliance Chairman Tobin Richardson he said that ZigBee is getting more aggressive about policing those who use the ZigBee certification without actually interoperating. That’s going to be amazing, but the next step will be getting those that use ZigBee to want to go through certification.

ZigBee versus Z-wave

And that may require device-maker and consumer demand. But still, things are changing. Cees Links, the CEO of a Holland-based company called Greenpeak Technologies, which supplies ZigBee chips is optimistic. One would expect that, of course, but Links is also the man credited with convincing Steve Jobs to put Wi-Fi inside the Mac, which was a huge step forward for that technology’s adoption.

He’s betting he can do it again with ZigBee. So, while I’ve heard that roughly nine out of ten sensors are using the proprietary Z-wave standard over ZigBee, and more startups are coming out with Bluetooth Low Energy devices that will communicate with handsets, Links is confident that ZigBee still has a place in the developing internet of things. First, off ZigBee is an open standard with multiple vendors, while Z-wave is dominated by one.

The Nest thermostat.

The Nest thermostat.

Second, the Alliance is really safe-guarding that openness now. He points to the acquisition of Ember by Silicon Labs last year as a big turning point for the standard. Not only did it bring a large chipmaker into the mix, something that will assuage the fears of device-makers who might be skittish about trusting a startup for all of their chip needs, but it freed up the ZigBee Alliance to become a true standards organization.

Links says that Ember had really dominated the direction of the Alliance and wasn’t interested in creating a broader ecosystem where other vendor’s chips would interoperate with theirs, but now that Silicon Labs has taken over, the Alliance is focused on broadening adoption of all ZigBee chips, not just Ember’s. So with Greenpeak, Silicon Labs and Texas Instruments all producing silicon Links hopes device-makers will go with ZigBee as opposed to Z-wave.

Sneaking ZigBee into the home

As for the contention that all you need it Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Links is skeptical that Bluetooth Low Energy can really handle the distance to become an in-home network, as opposed to a personal area network. And Wi-Fi consumes too much energy. So while, executives at Broadcom and Qualcomm are skeptical that you need more than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, so far service providers and companies deploying in-home sensors are pretty sure ZigBee or maybe Z-wave has a place.

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The next step after getting the chips widely used inside homes (the Comcast deployment should help here in the U.S.) will be getting a ZigBee chip inside the smartphone. Since the mobile handset or tablet is the homeowner’s primary method of communicating with sensors in the home, getting such a chip integrated inside would be huge for ZigBee.

Right now, a ZigBee radio must sneak into the home through a hub, router or set top box — making its adoption by homeowners dependent on the service providers and a few early adopters who buy things like the Almond Router, the SmartThings hub or the Revolv hub. That’s why Comcast’s decision to integrate ZigBee in its Xfinity Home gear is so big.

Of course, we’ll know if ZigBee is getting closer to the defacto standard for sensor networks once Qualcomm or Broadcom picks up Greenpeak — or they change their tune on the standard. And then, maybe we’ll see ZigBee make it into the handset or tablet. Of course, given the existing popularity of Z-Wave and the damage of fragmentation in the ZigBee market so far, none of this might happen, but if it’s going to, now’s the time.

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