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The lowdown on the new and improved Zigbee 3.0

03 Sep 2015  | Cees Links

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Frankly speaking, that is what is happening today in the IoT and Smart Home spaces. Again. Apparently, many of our industry leading companies have not learned the lesson that standards wars harm and slow down the adoption of new technologies. Apple HomeKit, Google Brillo, Qualcomm Alljoyn, Intel IoTivity and most recently: Huawei LiteOS, from the Chinese side of the house. All of these emerging application frameworks are now competing to get industry mindshare and to become the "leader in the IoT", expecting the world to follow suit.

There is one more layer of confusion. Next to the application framework layer, there is a battle going on at the networking level. The clear contender is ZigBee 3.0 with Thread as the challenger. But even more confusing is that several key players in the Thread Group (like Freescale, ARM and Silicon Labs – notably all semiconductor companies) also have prominent leadership positions in the ZigBee Alliance (yes, it is a promiscuous world), so it looks that these technology companies are somewhat confused themselves...

Thread was announced late last year, but is still under wraps today. One can only guess what will be in there – but from what is leaking out it appears that it will be a real challenge for Thread to rise to the level of being a strong contender against ZigBee 3.0. That should not be a surprise as ZigBee 3.0 has incorporated years of experience in many application domains (lighting control, home automation, building automation, retail, etc.). With ZigBee, a very solid certification program is already up and running, test houses are signed up, and more than 1,000 ZigBee products have been certified. ZigBee has clearly become the technology of choice for many of the world's IoT and Smart Home system makers. ZigBee also offers powerful ease-of-use features and strong security protocols. This is a major challenge to implement as sensors and edge devices usually do not have keyboards to enter security codes.

On top of that, ZigBee 3.0 supports an application library that has lived through multiple iterations of maturation. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Thread Group is seriously looking at adopting this ZigBee application library to run over Thread as well. But there is more: (1) ZigBee 3.0 is strongly anchored in the CE world with ZigBee RF4CE and (2) also includes the ZigBee Green Power feature. Let's give this a closer look.

ZigBee RF4CE
ZigBee RF4CE was initially developed in the consumer electronics space to replace the Infra-Red (IR) remote controls with radio-based remote controls, so that aim and click would no longer be required. But since then it has significantly evolved, and in its latest version (ZRC 2.0), it is fully integrated with the ZigBee application library. This means that a remote control designed for a TV or a set-top box can also control lamps, lights, curtains, sun shades, etc. in the home. The expectation is that over time, the consumer electronics space and the Smart Home space will continue to overlap and merge, and ZRC 2.0 is well positioned for that.

ZigBee RF4CE continues to provide full backward compatibility with the legacy IR space. ZigBee remote controls can automatically detect and download the required code-sets for legacy equipment that requires IR. Because of all these features, as well as its international acceptance, it is not a surprise that RF4CE makes ZigBee a key enabler for the Smart Home, and that the Smart Home is a major new service opportunity for the cable and TV operators!

In addition to ultra-low power requirements (comparable to Bluetooth Low Energy, but with much better range), the key value add of ZigBee RF4CE is its low latency. User interface devices benefit from low latency, because they enable product builders to provide the user immediate feedback (usually required to be less than 30 milliseconds). Normally meshing networks (including Thread) tend to see latency going up to hundred milliseconds or more, making the user experience quite unpleasant. Almost everyone has had the experience of pushing a button, nothing happens, and then pushing the button again: the light finally turns on and then, immediately turns off again. Arggh! That is not what happens with a wired light switch today, so nobody needs to accept this just because "now it is wireless". Being able to add low latency human interface devices to the network is very key for ZigBee.

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