Blog Post

ZigBee keeps trying: Adds remote control standard for smart home

The major chip vendors are pushing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth like it’s going out of style, but ZigBee, the low power, mesh networking tech, is still wrangling for a place in the smart home. The ZigBee Alliance has released another customized version of its standard aimed at remote controls, which aims to handle the radio and a bit of software to ensure all remote controls using the standard can control devices that also have implemented it.

This will be most relevant in the service provider market, where companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and others are deploying ZigBee-based smart home offerings. But the act of releasing the new software is a perfect example of why so many other groups hate ZigBee. Get ready to learn a bit about radios, y’all.

The ZigBee standard doesn’t just include the radio hardware and transmission standards, which are based on the IEEE’s 802.15.4 standard, it also includes software that establishes different profiles for the devices that use it. This is both useful and problematic depending on how it’s implemented. If manufacturers of products decide they want devices to interoperate, they use the same radios and software profiles, but in ZigBee’s case what happened was that other companies didn’t actually want their devices to interoperate because it might prevent customer lock-in, so they used different software profiles.

The many recent releases of specialized ZigBee profiles such as the one above, are how ZigBee is trying to solve this fragmentation problem. The challenge is that everyone still has to adopt the new frameworks to ensure that their devices interoperate, and the mess of profiles means it can be tough to verify if a ZigBee product really works with other ZigBee products

As the smart home industry comes together, it’s becoming clear that devices should interoperate and any credible standard should make that as easy as possible. This is one of ZigBee’s efforts, and why its rival Z-wave has never messed with software profiles on top of the radio. For the average consumer, this bit of history hopefully helps explain why ZigBee has gotten such a bad rap.

And it may not get much better. Later this month a group of smart home companies including Samsung and Nest are releasing details on the Thread radio protocol that it built on top of the same IEEE 802.15.4 standard. If it makes sense or gains usage, then we may see a wholesale software update across ZigBee radios to update them to this newer software layer. If there’s a moral here, it’s probably that when you are building a standard, make sure it’s interoperable, because that’s the point of a standard.