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April 1, 2019
As the newest member of the Zigbee Alliance’s Board of Directors, Amazon has an opportunity to raise the profile of Zigbee communication protocols among a mainstream audience.
Zigbee open protocols are already widely used to facilitate the interoperability of a variety of IoT devices in the smart home space and various other industries, and their usage will only increase as consumer-facing companies begin to recognize their utility.
The protocol’s profile recently received a noteworthy boost when, on January 24, the Zigbee Alliance announced that Amazon would be joining its Board of Directors, making the e-commerce giant the newest key member of an industry body tasked with specifying, advocating for, and implementing Zigbee standards.
The increased visibility generated by Amazon’s joining the Board of Directors should not be underestimated, but the underlying dynamics of the invitation are fairly complex. Membership in the Zigbee Alliance — to say nothing of a seat on its Board of Directors — comes with real responsibilities. Indeed, the latest Zigbee protocol, Zigbee 3.0, was the direct result of years of development by Zigbee Alliance partners.
And while Amazon certainly has the resources to make significant contributions to the Alliance, its joining the Board of Directors was not an unprecedented show of support. Even before membership was on the table, Amazon had been starting to experiment with Zigbee technology. Most notably, the company currently supports Zigbee via its Echo Plus, allowing the smart speaker’s voice assistant, Alexa, to seamlessly integrate with other smart devices like Philips Hue light bulbs.
At Telink Semiconductor, we’re firm believers in the power of the Zigbee standard, and we applaud any company large or small that opts to pursue membership in a group like the Zigbee Alliance.
Founded in 2002, the Zigbee Alliance was designed to create and promote universal open standards for smart IoT technologies. Over the last 17 years, the Alliance’s membership has grown to over 300 companies, including Comcast, Ikea, Legrand, Samsung SmartThings, and now, Amazon. Telink has been a member since 2012.
As Zigbee Alliance President and CEO Tobin Richardson notes, “Amazon [is joining] an impressive lineup of other industry leaders and innovators on the Board who work with the Zigbee Alliance’s open standards and community to deliver real value in the IoT.”
Even before the Zigbee Alliance unveiled its newest high-profile board member, interest in Zigbee technology had already started to balloon. While, as of August 2018, roughly 500 million Zigbee chips had been sold, analysts expect that figure to jump to 1 billion per year by 2023. In fact, of the 4.5 billion IEEE 802.15.4 mesh devices that will be sold worldwide in 2023, a healthy 85 percent of them are expected to align with Zigbee Alliance standards.
A number of Zigbee Alliance members focus in part or in whole on the development of smart home technologies, an area where connected devices are dramatically shifting how people live their lives. Leveraging a network of interconnected lights, switches, plugs, and voice assistants, consumer-facing smart devices can now handle everything from energy management and home security to access control (doors and locks) and an assortment of entertainment tasks.
It should not be unsurprising, then, that the global smart home market is projected to exceed $165 billion as soon as 2025. North American consumers are forecasted to spend the most on smart home solutions, including some $62.5 billion in 2022 alone.
As this market has expanded, it has become clear that ease of use is a major sticking point for customers — if a device isn’t easy to set up, integrate with their existing systems, and control, they might not buy it. In fact, a Parks Associates study suggests a full three-quarters of U.S. consumers value interoperability when buying smart devices for their homes.
Open communication protocols are part of the smart device industry’s answer to consumers’ lingering interoperability concerns, as only open and standardized connectivity can unite devices across manufacturers. Competing vendors can utilize common protocols to enable devices to talk to each other throughout a smart home ecosystem, eliminating compatibility issues and making a compelling case for consumers to invest in additional devices.
Cross-vendor interoperability is attractive unto itself, but it also contributes to the second facet of ease of use: centralized control. As a growing number of elements of consumers’ homes come online, streamlined “smart home management” will become an increasingly pressing concern. Smart devices have tremendous potential, to be sure, but they become more of a hindrance than a help when consumers must juggle multiple remotes or open separate apps to get each of them to work.
This is where Zigbee Alliance members like Amazon and Comcast can have a major impact. By empowering consumers to centralize their smart home management in devices they already have and use inside their homes, these companies can help ensure not only that various smart devices will integrate with each other seamlessly, but that all of these devices can be managed via a user-friendly control interface.
Many forward-thinking manufacturers are turning to mesh networking as a means of optimizing smart device communications — both from device to device and from devices to a centralized control hub.
In short, mesh networks are comprised of highly interconnected peer-to-peer nodes that needn’t communicate via a centralized router, making them an ideal fit for devices that are often in constant communication not only with a centralized node, but with many other nearby devices, as well.
What’s more, devices featuring a mesh networking interface are able to relay data without transmitting information across the internet at all. Imagine, for instance, a homeowner installs a smart security camera on their front porch that, when it spots a potential intruder, instructs the home’s smart lights to turn on.
When connected to a traditional WiFi network, the data (i.e. images) captured by the camera will have to travel from the camera to the home’s central WiFi router, then to a server owned by the consumer’s Service Provider (where it will be processed), then back to the consumer’s router, and only then to the smart lights. This not only introduces lag into the equation, but creates numerous potential points of failure. If the camera and lights are mesh-friendly, however, the data captured by the camera will only have to make a single hop — from camera to lights — no internet required.
Evolving beyond the “internet as middleman” networking model has the potential to create stronger, more powerful smart home ecosystems, but only if each of a mesh network’s nodes is able to speak the same language. Should it continue to mature and proliferate, Zigbee could play an important role in bringing an open standard to smart products across a variety of complex digital ecosystems.