Almost two years ago Control 4 the home automation Company told the world that their technology was going to set the home automation world on fire. Using the Zigbee networking standard they said that Australia would be one of the fist Countries outside the USA to get the product.

Now we are heading into another CEDIA Expo and to date we have nor seen one home installation in Australia using the Control 4 range of products. At the same time questions are now being raised about Zigbee technology and its future in the home with experts saying that commercoal application are more the go for Zigbee technology than the home.

When the Zigbee Alliance made its debut, the organisation heavily promoted its new networking protocol as a home automation tool – one that could enable a futuristic home that took monitoring and control of functions such as security and lighting to a new level of sophistication for the modern homeowner.

The alliance’s Zigbee standard, built on top of the IEEE’s 802.15.4, was created so that network nodes made by different companies could interoperate. Homeowners could use the technology to designate which lights would be on and off and dimmed for parties, or a night at home alone, or while away on vacation.  Security applications could monitor potential breaches. Sprinklers could turn off or on depending upon the moisture level of the soil. And the home owner could easily control all of these functions from a central control.

But a funny thing happened. While Zigbee was being promoted heavily as the infrastructure for the home of the future, commercial and industrial product companies were quietly creating applications of their own. It turns out these applications are more popular among early Zigbee developers and adopters.  Indeed, most of the vendors at last week’s Zigbee Open House event in the USA were offering solutions for the industrial and commercial space. And the keynote speaker, Dick Braley, of Federal Express, discussed how his company planned to use Zigbee to track its assets, the performance of its equipment, and also track some high value packages. 

 

So what happened to the consumer applications?

“With any emerging market you put feelers out,” said Brett Black, operations manager for the radio products division at Freescale Semiconductor. “Now some key applications are starting to bubble up.” And while the consumer space can be enticing because it offers a quicker time to market – six to 12 months – “overall, margins for the industrial space are better in the long term,” he said.

That said, Black and others agreed that consumer products will begin to appear at the end of the summer. For example, he said, Hawking Technologies and Crabtree Electronics are expected to soon offer home server devices that would allow consumers remote access to their home Zigbee networks. For example, while away on a business trip, a user could access his or her home Zigbee network over the Internet and turn on the hot tub, turn off the air conditioning or turn on the security system.

Other companies are looking to Zigbee as a replacement for infrared remote control devices that are now used in the home. For example, the high-end purveyor of audio systems, Niles Audio, is now advertising a Zigbee-based remote control.

Freescale itself is working on offering Zigbee functionality for cell phones – turning that ubiquitous device that has been a phone, a camera, an MP3 player and a PDA into yet something else – a remote control for every Zigbee-enabled home appliance.

Other Zigbee-enabled consumer devices are less obvious. One of the first customers for U.K.-based Jennic’s Zigbee devices was Triton Showers, a maker of high-end shower heads. More than just your run-of-the-mill shower head, these devices allow users to set a specific water temperature.

It wasn’t an application that Jennic’s CEO ever envisioned. Really, companies are coming to Jennic with interesting ideas for new applications, not the other way around.

“Those who are going to market now are those who want a microcontroller with wireless functionality,” said Jim Lindop, Jennic CEO. Such products may never be advertised as being Zigbee-enabled, he added. Rather, Zigbee will just be used as a wireless protocol for communication to and from the device. And that makes for a diverse end market.

“We are seeing all kinds of applications for Zigbee, but no one of them is category leading.” 

 

Geographically, Lindop said, Jennic’s Korean prospects seem most focused on the home automation space. Prospects from China and India are more interested in Zigbee’s energy conservation benefits, as the technology can be used to program appliances to be used more efficiently and the nodes themselves require very low power. And in the United States and Europe, developers are most interested in broadband applications.

“We’ve got no focus or control over different markets,” said Lindop. “Our embedded wireless microcontroller can be built into everything.”

But consumer markets are more cost sensitive than the industrial and commercial spaces, making them less attractive to some Zigbee chipmakers. Silicon Laboratories is one of many companies targeting the commercial and industrial space to start, according to Gary Franzonsa, marketing manager for interface products in the MCU division of the company. The company chose those markets because they offered higher margins than the cost-sensitive consumer space.

Crossbow also specialises in the industrial space.

“That’s where customers came to us first,” said Shana Jacob, a sales engineer with the San Jose-based company. “But probably we will eventually go into the consumer space.”

Tendril Networks has also put its initial attention on non-consumer markets because they are “more lucrative,” according to CEO Tim Enwall. “The Zigbee Alliance is doing a lot to promote the consumer electronics space and doing a great job of it, but that is not a business opportunity for us,” he said.

“We have definitely seen more interest from the commercial and industrial space,” said Alex Leonov, marketing manager for Moscow-based MeshNetics.  In particular, his company has seen interest from systems integrators, transportation companies and utilities interested in automated meter reading.

As for consumer electronics products that are promoted as Zigbee-enabled, those are likely to hit the market later this year. However, they may not take hold in the mass market right away. Remote controls for Zigbee-based home automation won’t make sense until homes have an installed base of Zigbee nodes, said Jennic’s Lindop. And high volume production of such nodes requires low pricing for the consumer space.  Prices still aren’t where they need to be for that to happen, he said.

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