Will Google kill ZigBee?

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.

It’s worth pointing out that Google has some major challenges if it is going to achieve any level of success with a wireless stanard.  Robust wireless standards are not easy to write.  Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and ZigBee are all ten years old – it’s taken that long to get them right.  Wireless is difficult – it introduces issues of security, topology and connectivity that aren’t there is a cable.  For more on the problems of writing a wireless standard, read the book.

That made it odd to hear Eric Holland of Lighting Science Group expostulating about their shortcomings, citing interference, latency and difficulty in deployment.  He may know something the rest of us don’t, but it sounds like a glib marketing story.  According to reports the radio will “run in the 800 – 915MHz band”.  That is actually a lot more limited than it sounds, allowing a limited number of devices.  Plus it’s not a global band, so products designed for the US will be illegal in Europe and vice versa.  There are already other standards working in that range, so they may be building on one of those, but most of them are pretty basic and need a lot of work if they’re going to grow to support billions of devices.  Which takes a lot of time.  The low frequency has the advantage of having better range than 2.4GHz, which is good for home automation.  But it has a significant disadvantage which is that it requires yet another antenna for phone and tablet manufacturers to add to their devices, which may make it difficult to persuade them to adopt it. 

Then there’s the issue of regulations.  However clever you are, you can’t just design a new radio and sell it.  You need to get it approved in each country you sell it and meet some very strict legal requirements on how your radio operates.  There are ways around that; some manufacturers make certified modules, which can be used in products without the need for further certification, but it’s a process that is highly regulated and poorly understood by most home automation developers.

Plus there are IP issues.  Holland claims that this is a mesh network.  If it is, it’s probably infringing someone’s intellectual property – quite possibly that of the ZigBee Alliance members.  If it’s using security, then it’s probably infringing IP from within Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  And if it’s not using security you don’t want to use it, or else your neighbour’s kids will start controlling your lights.  Moreover, the people who own much of this IP, such as Nokia, Ericsson and Qualcomm, have bigger and nastier lawyers than Google.

My guess is that this is an early demo, with a partner who has given a rather naïve press interview.  Nevertheless, the industry should not underestimate it.  As I said earlier, Google understands the value of APIs.  If it chooses a competent wireless standard and provides the right APIs it could quite easily capture the home automation market, killing it off for anyone else.  And possibly discard Lighting Science Group along the way as an expendable means to an end.  Alternatively Google could decide to sit an API on top of a number of different standards, and let the market decide on which one to use.  Although the user experience from that approach is not wonderful.

The alternative is for the competing wireless standards to make their standards easier to use, but I’m not confident about that.  I’ve sat in standards meetings when working group members have argued that it’s not there job to write APIs, because that’s not what a wireless standard is about.  It’s as if they’re afraid that someone might actually use their standard if they make it easy to use.

So it will be interesting to see what happens?  In a soundbite fixated world this announcement will increase the level of chatter which can only be negative for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and ZigBee.  With the smallest market base of the triumvirate, ZigBee probably has most to lose.  If it gets its head down and concentrates on getting products out it should be fine (which should be a wake up call to those in the current SEP2.0 debate).  But it’s a diversion that ZigBee could do without.  On the other hand, if the industry delays its smart meter roll-out, all bets could be off.

Bluetooth may not fare any better.  It’s finally getting to the point where Bluetooth low energy may see the light of day after a tortuous journey.  I’d suggest that the Bluetooth SIG should be offering that standard to Google on bended knee, as Bluetooth low energy desperately needs some momentum to get it going.  So Google may be the best bet for Bluetooth low energy, if the Bluetooth potentates can bring themselves to descend from their Ivory Tower in Seattle.  There is alreadysome confusion about what the underlying wireless offering is in Android@Home.  Alongside Holland’s assertion that it will be a mesh in the 800 – 915MHz range, other commentators have reported that Google’s plans do include Bluetooth, so maybe that journey from Seattle’s Olympian peaks is already taking place.

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi may find its aspirations outside wireless internet and video streaming dispatched to an early grave.  Which is worrying for those companies trying to carve out a niche for low power Wi-Fi applications.

There’s an interesting new partnership opportunity which could threaten them all, which is for Google to pair up with low power DECT.  That’s having something of a resurgence and offers a radio and protocol that would make a rather good match.  But it’s probably a little too bizarre a partnership to contemplate.

So, its time to put down you bets on Home Automation.  It will probably be a long and dirty path.  And unless you plan to replace any purchases within the next three years, it might be a good idea to put off buying anything until then.  Just remember how much good getting up and walking to the light switch is doing you.  If we’re lucky, or maybe it should be unlucky, we may be the last generation to do that, so that it’s a journey our children will never take…