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By integrating ZigBee with set top boxes, cable TV operators are able to deliver entirely new services. For example, Comcast's ZigBee-enabled Xfinity set top box offers home security and energy management features and services. Users can remotely adjust thermostats and turn lights off or on via their smartphones. Customers subscribing to Comcast's premium security service can even access streaming video from cameras installed inside their homes.
A Growing Market
The home automation market is young and ZigBee faces quite a bit of competition. The Enocean Alliance emphasizes the use of energy harvesting devices for building automation. The Z-Wave Alliance targets home automation using technology developed by Sigma Designs. Insteon offers home automation products using a mix of radio and power line communications. ANT and ANT+ are open specifications targeting smart buildings (ANT) as well as health and fitness markets (ANT+). Each of these competing solutions enjoys broad support.
However, as the market grows there will be increased demand for interoperability. At first, this demand may be satisfied through the use of gateways that interconnect otherwise incompatible networks in the same home. And some vendors may choose to support multiple networking solutions. But ultimately there will be pressure to consolidate. Because ZigBee has the flexibility to serve a wide range of applications, it may be best positioned to lead the home automation industry as it begins to mature.
Some may believe that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have all short-range wireless requirements covered. However, while Wi-Fi and Bluetooth continue to enhance and broaden their capabilities, ZigBee can do things that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can't. ZigBee is simpler than Wi-Fi and consumes much less power. Though a low-power version of Bluetooth has been developed--Bluetooth low energy (BLE)--it (like Bluetooth classic) is primarily intended for connecting personal devices over short distances. Only ZigBee was designed from the ground up to network a large number of sensors and controllers distributed around the home.
Don't expect large home automation networks to suddenly materialize. Instead, they will grow from small home automation networks. Having made inroads in remote controls and set top boxes, ZigBee is well positioned. Now it's up to vendors to turn hypothetical applications such as energy management into compelling, money-saving applications that will drive home automation sales.
Ira Brodsky is a St. Louis, Missouri-based consultant and the author of The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses.