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'Stayin' alive': ZigBee tries to create wireless dance fever

Zigbee sounds like a reunion band from the 1970s, but it is in fact a wireless specification that is designed to work with a variety of communicable devices in the home and office.





I hate to admit it, but I reluctantly remember the days of disco and stepping out on the brightly lit dance floors of now defunct clubs like the Mad Hatter, which was located on the periphery of what is now called Boston's Leather District (a reference to this city's earlier textile industries and trades). The area is now populated by a variety of high-tech and multimedia design companies (which means that the next generation might rename this geographic area the "Web District", or perhaps "Virtual Alley"), but the echoes of such groups as K.C. and the Sunshine Band and the BeeGees still remain -- at least in the minds of people who still have their polyester shirts and platform shoes tucked safely away in their attics. It is "stayin' alive", with a new HTML twist.

This is probably why I was intrigued by all this talk about a communications technology called ZigBee, which sounds like a reunion band straight out of the 1970s. In fact, ZigBee is a wireless specification that is designed to work with a variety of communicable devices within the home and office that can boogie-woogie-oogie for extended periods of time because of their low-power characteristics. These home and building automation devices include everything from so-called "intelligent" refrigerators and toaster ovens to sophisticated in-building environmental controls and security systems.

Backers of the specification have even grouped into an organization called the ZigBee Alliance, which includes such heavyweight supporters as Motorola, Honeywell, Philips Electronics and Mitsubishi Electric. To date, there are about 50 ZigBee supporters and corporate sponsors worldwide.

The basic idea of ZigBee is to offer a very simple and secure way to network a myriad of devices that exist throughout a home or building. This communications network will not only include lighting, heating and cooling systems within a corporations, but might also encompass wireless RFID devices and tags -- a technology we touched upon two weeks ago that will play a very critical role in the fast-growing area of homeland security and public safety. We are not talking more powerful 802.11 or even Bluetooth wireless systems here, just very simple and direct communications between my automated doorway and its administrative host.

ZigBee proponents hope to have the specification ready for prime time very soon this year, with first products hitting the streets by summer. The market for such products, according to the Wireless Data Research Group, is expected to grow from about $9 million right now to more than $1.3 billion by 2007 -- a growth pace that might spur even the most conservative investor and venture capitalist to take a few spins on a lighted, fiberglass dance floor. Maybe even shake up a little of that VC booty, which has been sitting in investor limbo awaiting the "next big thing."

Disco duck
The problem, however is that like disco, ZigBee might be a fast and furious fad that attracts a lot of initial attention, but ultimately will go the way of large shirt collars and shell necklaces for men. One reason is the primary focus of such "smart products", the home market, which is not exactly ripe for a new generation of smart and communicative appliances. Companies like Motorola have been talking about and developing prototypes of smart devices for years, but there still doesn't not seem to be little more than a trickle of a demand for products that can sense when my cottage cheese has gone south or my oven is off by a degree or two.

Another, more critical reason for not getting too excited by ZigBee is that the technology is actually a descendant of the ill-fated HomeRF specification, which also focused on wireless communications within the home and was initially supported by a consortium of vendors. The HomeRF Working Group, established in 1998 and backed by such companies as Proxim, Motorola and Compaq Computer Corp., disbanded earlier this year. The low-power technology was ultimately done in by 802.11b, which continues to be the darling of home networking and Starbuck's coffee shops nationwide.

The ZigBee specification combines some of the elements of HomeRF Lite and 802.15.4, and operates in the same 2.4GHz radio band as Bluetooth and a variety of consumer devices like garage door openers, cordless phones and extended-life light bulbs. But, while ZigBee can theoretically juggle up to 255 devices per network, it's 250K bit/sec communication speed is a technology tortoise when compared with the 11M bit/sec rates of 802.11b or the 1M bit/sec speeds of Bluetooth.

Looking back, disco may have been embarrassing, but at least it was fast! ZigBee's survival is also jeopardy due to an increased demand for wireless multimedia entertainment within the home, and wireless multimedia-rich information within the business community. Consumers are already relying on 802.11-based Wi-Fi systems to connect all sorts of computer and peripheral devices within their homes and swap music and video files. These same consumers are now using faster technologies, such as 802.11a, and are very interested in such emerging schemes as ultra wide band, which are designed to support wireless high-bandwidth multimedia applications and are being positioned as the home technology backbones of the future.

Trying not to get bumped
There is no doubt that you will hear more about ZigBee as the year unfolds, especially as supporters of the specification start to put a positive marketing spin on the technology. (It's slow! It's short-range! But isn't the name cool?) Manufacturers and developers will also continue to rationalize the need for wireless alternatives and multiple wireless networks -- even though these alternatives might be slower and less flexible than the current crop of wireless products. (Philips and Sony Corp. last year agreed to work on yet another short-range wireless specification, called Near Field Communications, which is even slower than ZigBee).

Like disco, however, these alternatives are not the only dances in town and will most likely not survive beyond the technology fad stage. Our advice to developers and manufacturers is to move toward the light at the end of the dance floor and work on technologies that actually provide a solution to real problems, instead of inventing a problem and then offering negligible solutions. This is the only sure way of stayin' alive in this competitive industry.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to www.shorelineresearch.com.


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