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Surf & Turf

Z-Wave is Becoming the Next Big Technology to Hit the Home Control Market

As home control manufacturers attempt to go more mainstream, wireless networking technology is seen as a natural way around the problems of legacy homesthose that didnt have the requisite wiring that was, until now, required to command myriad distributed devices.

Z-Wave, a radio-frequency (RF)-based technology, is one of the contenders hoping to capture this nascent market. Z-Wave technology is the product of Zensys, a Danish company that has now moved its headquarters to Silicon Valley. Zensys is not attempting to become a home control company itself. Rather, it has developed the underlying wireless technology and is supplying the integrated circuit (IC) chips and related software to a rapidly growing list of companies marketing Z-Wave-enabled devices to end customers.

To help guide development of the Z-Wave technology and promote Z-Wave in the market, Zensys and five of its key customersIntermatic, Leviton, Universal Electronics (UEI), and Wayne Daltonformed the Z-Wave Alliance in January 2005. Almost a year and a half later, Intel and Monster joined the alliance as principal members. The alliance currently numbers more than 125 member companies.

Zensys also has benefited from investments made by a couple of the technology worlds giants, including Cisco Systems and Intel Capital. Though the sizes of these capital infusions were not disclosed, they should prove useful in helping Zensys develop its technology and get a foothold in the home automation market. In this quest, Z-Wave will have to battle other solutions already on the scene, including existing proprietary RF solutions, ZigBee, the well-known X10, and the recently debuted Insteon, which works over existing electrical wiring and comes with an RF bridging option. All of these solutions, categorized as no-new-wire technologies, essentially re-purpose an electrical distribution network to work as a low-data-rate signaling network as well.

Zensys CEO Tony Shakib, who sees the home automation market as a wide open green field, said that one key advantage for Z-Waves entry into the club is its pitch to specific applicationsfor example, lighting control or sprinkler managementrather than to home control. Home automation is a label that scares people away, Shakib said. You think that it is for the future; [but] not really for right now.

Shakib highlighted a series of points (robustness, interoperability, affordability, and a variety of products to flow into different channels) that he said are keys to home automations success in the mass market. He believes that Z-Wave has them all. We wouldnt have picked up Logitech as a customer, or Monster, or companies like that [if the technology wasnt solid], he explained, because they test it to death.

Z-Waves reliability lies in its mesh networking capability. In a mesh network, each device will forward along any packets it receives that are addressed to a different device. This helps get around the problem of uneven RF coverage. If one device cannot directly reach another device, then other devices that receive the transmitted packet will forward it along until it reaches the device to which it was addressed. (ZigBee networks also support mesh networking).

Interoperability may be Z-Waves trump card. Although the purpose of industry standards like IEEE-802.15.4 and the ZigBee software is also to foster interoperability, having a standard might not be enough when radios and software stacks are being built by multiple vendors. On the other hand, Zensys supplies chip and Z-Wave software to all of its manufacturing customers, making interoperability more easily assured.

The knock against Z-Wave is that it is proprietary, rather than standards-based, and that theres only one source (Zensys) for the technology. This does, however, give Z-Wave a distinct advantage in terms of product interoperability. Z-Wave operates in the 902 MHz-928 MHz frequency band (in the U.S.; 868 MHz-870 MHz in Europe). This theoretically gives it a range advantage over IEEE-802.15.4/ZigBee and other devices operating in the 2.4 GHz band. (All other thingssuch as transmit power and receiver sensitivitybeing equal, higher frequencies tend to suffer greater attenuation over distance than do lower frequencies). In any case, range is not likely to be an issue. Z-Waves data transfer rate of 40,000 bits per second (40 kbps), while not as high as IEEE-802.15.4s 250 kbps, should be more than sufficient for most home networks. After all, it only takes a few bytes to send a command to a light switch or set a dimmer level.

Up to 232 devices can be members of a Z-Wave network, which is a far cry from ZigBees 65,535-device-per-network limit. But, for the next few years at least, few homes will have more than a couple hundred Z-Wave-enabled devices. Multiple networkseach with up to 232 devicescan be bridged together, to take things as far as you want to go.

Zensys also claims advantage on cost, which is of great importance when competing against the low production cost of IR components. IEEE-802.15.4 development has been predicated on very low cost, and the competition from multiple suppliers theoretically should also drive down costs. But Zensys is now about to ship the third generation of its Z-Wave chip, and every spin works to wring out costs. Shakib claims that the die area of their chip is one-third that of an IEEE-802.15.4 device. And in the world of semiconductors, silicon real estate is money.

Zensys distribution and channels strategy is closely tied in with its goal of taking home automation to the masses. Home improvement chains such as Lowes and other high-volume retailers like Best Buy figure prominently. Where do custom electronics dealers and installers figure in all of this? For those concerned that cheap, user-installable control products will destroy the high-end control market that many dealers have found profitable, Michael Einstein, vice president of corporate innovation for Intermatic, placed some worries to rest. First of all, most people dont even want to change a wall switch. Less than 25 percent of America will change a wall switch. Secondly, if you really want to do an integrated systemhome theater, home controlpeople arent really going to do that themselves. In other words, the need for the secret sauce (integration and configuration of relatively complex systems) doesnt go away simply because the wires do.

Intermatic is therefore readying a higher-end line of Z-Wave-enabled switches, dimmers, and other products designed for professional installers. Its designed for those guys to go in and make money, Einstein said. It will work with all the other Z-Wave products on the market; theyre all interoperable. But weve taken it way beyond what it was originally planned to do.

Logitech also has this two-pronged, retail/professional strategy. In March, the company began shipping its Harmony 890 handheld remotethe first to have both IR and RF control capability. The 890 also sends out commands using a built-in Z-Wave transceiver. What Logitech calls a wireless extender, located near the IR devices it needs to control, receives the Z-Wave command packets from the Harmony 890, converts them into IR signals, and blasts them to the equipment being controlled. This approach to remote control lets users operate IR-controlled devices that might be behind a cabinet door or in an adjacent equipment room.

Logitech also plans a Harmony 890 Pro version for professional installations geared toward control of everything from A/V equipment to lighting, blinds, and other home control tasks. Beyond that, it will control multi-source, multi-zone audio systems, and allow for multiple remotes within a home.

Z-Wave is certainly building in the marketplace, but winners are yet to be determined in the wireless control sweepstakes. West Technology Research Solutions has recently updated its estimates for Z-Wave and IEEE-802.15.4 and notes that Zensys will ship somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Z-Wave chips this year, and roughly twice those numbers in 2007. Zensys is privately held and as shipment data is proprietary. But Shakib implied that the right number is in the millions rather than hundreds of thousands, and said Zensys is shipping more than 100,000 units per quarter to each of their top customers

ABI Research, which does not release market share numbers on individual companies, has said that the firm is bullish on the wireless home control market and foresees real growth in the mainstream population that have ye to discover home automation. We think that entertainment control has the ability to be a bridge application, said Sam Lucero, a senior analyst for ABI. It gets the consumer thinking Wow, if I can do that while controlling my home theater system, what other things can I do with home control technology? Can I also control my home spa system outside? Could I also control door access?

Lucero does anticipate one wireless home control technology to vanquish the others in the next five years, noting that the youthful market has room for everyone. However, the next couple of years should give indicators of which technologies are gaining traction. With Zigbees focus on the commercial sector, its success will not be determined by the home market, but Lucero predicted that for Z-Wave and Insteon, success in the home is pretty much a make-or-break proposition.

Alan R. Frank ([email protected]) is a networking consultant and freelance writer on the topics of networking, communications, and digital entertainment.