The first question that most designers ask when adding wireless to their product is “which wireless standard to use?” In some cases, where it is connecting to an existing product, that’s easy to answer. If it’s not, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s one reason I wrote a book about it – to try and help designers answer that question. But another part of the same question is how well the different standards promote themselves as a solution?
This year has seen some major changes within some of those wireless standards. The ZigBee Alliance has lost Benno Ritter – for many years the global marketing face of ZigBee. And the Bluetooth SIG has replaced its Chairman, Mike Foley, as well as its CTO, Andy Glass. Both are interesting moves, as each of these standards is still evolving. ZigBee is taking on smart lighting, home automation and smart metering, whilst Bluetooth is finally seeing Bluetooth Smart appearing in the mainstream. In a recent issue of Incisor magazine, Vince Holton wrote about the loss of passion within the Bluetooth SIG – a sentiment that I’d echo and also extend to some of the other wireless standards. But that’s an opinion formed from being close to these groups. A few years ago I ran to survey to try and see what the general engineering opinion was of the different wireless standards. Prompted by Vince’s article, I thought it would be useful to run the survey again to see what designers think as we approach the end of 2012.
And then there were none. Last month Silicon Labs acquired Ember – the last independent ZigBee chip manufacturer. It’s good news for the Smart Metering industry as it’s secured a future for Ember, who have become the chip and protocol stack supplier of choice for a large proportion of smart meters, IHDs and home gateways in the market today. It’s not such good news for the investment community, as the $72 million initial consideration from SiLabs is a little short of the $89 million investment that had gone into Ember. But given the fire sales of the other ZigBee start-ups, it’s still not a bad result.
And it could be one of those excellent fits that don’t come along that often. For Silicon Labs, it extends their radio technology into the hotly contested 2.4GHz band, complementing their very capable sub-GHz range of EZRadio PRO chips. It also gives them what I’d consider to be the best ZigBee stack on the market. And it gives Ember what must be a very comforting degree of financial security as well as a ready made range of sub-GHz radios, just at the point where the UK and Japanese smart metering communities are looking at 868MHz.
But it’s not just Ember getting gobbled up. A few weeks later, Samsung quietly acquired Nanoradio – the Swedish specialist in low power Wi-Fi for mobile phones. Both Ember and Nanoradios played the standards card and had essentially become one trick wireless ponies – a fate common to many wireless start-ups. Perversely, CSR did the opposite thing today, by divesting itself of much of its location technology, (which it had acquired from SiRF), to Samsung, who seem to be getting rather good at acquiring bits of wireless technology. In doing so CSR moved itself back closer to its Bluetooth roots.
Although the prospect of an acquisition is the raison d’être of most wireless silicon start-ups, I wonder whether this flurry of activity indicates that we’re nearing an end-game? In which case, what comes next?
How much does it cost to produce a wireless standard? And how long does it take? Surprisingly those aren’t questions that are asked very often – probably because most developers are happy to use what already exists rather than starting again from scratch.
In the UK, some members of the smart metering programme have begun asking these questions, potentially for the wrong reasons. They’ve realised that ZigBee – the current front-runner for the UK smart metering deployment, can’t provide the range to cope with every single house or block of flats, and have started wondering about whether it might make sense to start again from scratch.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book on the Essentials of Short Range Wireless I attempted to put some numbers to those questions. It seems an appropriate time to publish them, as the answers are a lot more and a lot longer than most people think.
One of the more interesting recent announcements in the wireless space has been the appointment of two new companies to the Board of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) – Apple and Nordic Semiconductor.
Neither are immediately obvious candidates, which is what makes this interesting. But taking a deeper look their appointment could highlight some interesting changes in where Bluetooth is going.
Or will it main Bluetooth? Or Wi-Fi? Or maybe Z-Wave? Or any of the multitude of other short range wireless standards. It’s a question that was raised last week when Google did a keynote presentation on Android@Home at their I/O Conference where they announced a wireless light bulb which could be turned on and off from a mobile phone. The technical details are very sketchy – much of it coming from Lighting Sciences Group, who did the accompanying demonstration. It’s unclear whether it’s a new radio, a new protocol, a new standard or even what frequency it’s running at. But you don’t expect the absence of little details like that to stop speculation.
The greatest level of speculation has come from the smart energy industry, who are suggesting that ZigBee could be the main casualty. Jesse Best at Smart Grid News asks whether this will take away ZigBee’s momentum. And there’s an interesting range of comments about that on his site about that, which are worth reading. Throughout the industry, Google’s announcement is making people question whether they’ve made the right choice?
I’m not sure that anything Google does will displace ZigBee from its place in smart meters. That’s actually quite a closed market, as most utilities don’t really want to share that data with consumer devices. Where it is a threat is in home automation. Home Automation is still a very nascent market and Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and ZigBee are all pitching to own it. The reason I think they are at risk is because of what Google can bring, which is an API (Application Programming Interface). Google has succeeded in areas like mapping because it makes it easy for developers to access and mash up data. In contrast, wireless standards shy away from making their stacks easy to use, particularly for embedded designs. If Google can make it easy, thousands of garage and backroom developers will take it and innovate with it, and the existing standards may all find themselves left behind.
Over the last year, different groups have been beavering away to decide on a wireless standard for smart meters. It’s been interesting to observe the ways that different countries have approached this. There’s been the pragmatic approach of going with what’s available today, but with the understanding that it might need to be changed, so that everything currently being installed is at risk of needing replacement. That’s the UK approach of DECC. Then there’s the academic approach which is favoured by SGIP in the US, which entails producing a giant matrix of the vital (and not so vital) statistics of every possible wireless standard. At which point there will presumably be a flash of smoke, a glamorous assistant and a magician will be brought on stage to perform the conjuring trick of comparing apples, lobsters and elephants and deciding which is most appropriate of them for the smart energy feast. Or we have the slightly nepotistic ETSI approach over in Europe, which seems to be one of giving EU funding to all of their consultant or professor friends, who in return for this largesse promise to write their own, brand new wireless specification in time for the party.
Whilst some of these approaches consider cost in terms of the price of silicon, or even the opportunity cost in terms of time to market, one significant cost has been missing from their calculations – the cost of choosing a standard that opens up Intellectual Property disputes. That’s a real risk. The only place I’ve seen it publicly stated is in a briefing document from the Bluetooth SIG, which points out that from the IP viewpoint, wireless standards are far from equal. It’s a very valid concern. We’re already seeing the patent trolls coming out and attacking ZigBee and Wi-Fi. As volumes start to increase, so will their determination to make a fast buck. As soon as that happens, deployment could grind to a halt.