Experts debate future for 2.4GHz wireless standard

Bob Metcalfe, venture capitalist, technologist and pundit on Ethernet, has been making predictions about ZigBee, the 2.4GHz...

Bob Metcalfe, venture capitalist, technologist and pundit on Ethernet, has been making predictions about ZigBee, the 2.4GHz wireless standard - IEEE802.15.4 - aimed primarily at monitoring and control rather than data transfer.

At NetEvents in Barcelona last week, Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet in 1973 and is a partner in ZigBee developer Ember, said there are about eight billion microprocessors shipped every year, in everything from washing machines to industrial processes. "ZigBee will network these," he stated.

And that would make ZigBee one of the most ubiquitous technologies on the planet. However, others claim that ZigBee is all but dead in the water.

It will be ubiquitous because of its five-year battery life and cost of $5 per chip. For example, there is talk, said Metcalfe, of putting ZigBee in mobile phones, which will allow them to act as control devices, enabling applications such as home automation and security.

ZigBee is predicted to grow, according to Metcalfe, from 500,000 chips shipped this year to five to 50 million next year. "This is the really low end of the internet. There will be a ton of data coming to and from those probes. Middleware is yet to come," said Metcalfe.

He reckoned that ZigBee's attractiveness means that growth could be even larger because the value of a networked processor is so high that it will attract companies that currently do not use microprocessors.

Metcalfe envisaged applications such as lighting control, where every switch and light bulb would contain a tiny, very cheap radio. This would allow wiring to be abolished so that switches can do their job without relying on cabling. However the barriers, said Metcalfe, include "an endless series of little UI problems. How do you get consumers to programme a ZigBee controller to operate nine light bulbs?"

However, others say ZigBee's future is anything but rosy. West Technology Research Solutions said low-power wireless technology ZigBee is in danger of succumbing to the fragmentation so far avoided by standards-based specs such as Wi-Fi and WiMax.

Others, however, are more sanguine. Refuting the fragmentation claim, ABI Research said, "The final ZigBee standard has not yet been completely drafted and, until it is, no products can claim to be ZigBee-compliant. That has not stopped some suppliers from seeking a first foothold in the market with products based on an estimate of what the standard will finally look like."

In ABI's report, ZigBee and 802.15.4 Wireless Network Markets, analyst Chris Lopez said, "While a few companies have produced rather inferior solutions that are entirely proprietary, most of the companies offering 'pre-standard' products are themselves members of the ZigBee Alliance that is creating the standard. They know what's going to be in it because they're involved in writing it, and they are sticking very closely to what they know will be the protocol's final shape."

Bob Healy, president of the ZigBee Alliance, recently cautioned members to describe their current products as "ZigBee-ready", rather than "ZigBee-compliant". Lopez believes there is no chance that a buyer of one of today's "ZigBee-ready" products will be left out in the cold once the standard is ratified.

Finally, Lopez says, smart money - most conspicuously Paul Allen's multimillion-dollar investment in Ember - is heading towards the ZigBee market.

Manek Dubash writes for Techworld

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