Technical blog‎ > ‎

Zigbee: another "unstandarizable" standard?

posted Sep 8, 2008, 11:13 PM by Daniel Berenguer

It seems that Zigbee is finally following the steps of other "promising" standards. Started in 2003, Zigbee appeared as the solution for all our frustrations in terms of interoperable wireless control. Most important manufacturers were there, supporting the emergent standard and publishing imminent dates for the release of new products. Any Zigbee device from any manufacturer was going to provide total interoperability with any Zigbee compliant product. From light control systems to thermostats and even remote controls for the multimedia equipment, this standard made us think that the total solution for controlling devices wirelessly was just arriving. The massive production of Zigbee compliant devices was initially announced for 2004, then 2005, ... Now, three years after the rings and bells, Zigbee is still in the oven.

This article doesn't pretend to question Zigbee itself as technology. Indeed, Zigbee was started on a solid technological base. Based on a well defined low-level standard as IEEE 802.15.4 and providing support for different frequency bands, a great amount of IC manufacturers soon released Zigbee compatible interfaces and OEM modules. The price of the new RF controllers corroborated the promise of producing really low-cost devices and the presentation of a couple of prototypes in some international exhibitions removed the doubts of some of the most critic technologists. Moreover, the wish of the Zigbee organization has always been to provide reliable-interoperable low-cost devices.

Thus, what happens with these international standards? Why is moving these things ahead so hard? This is the actual subject of this article.

Communication standards are often created as a way of sharing costs and resources among the promoters. Besides, a company wanting to develop a product under a certain standard will find a communication protocol already defined and even the availability of well-tested platforms where to start developing from. But the companies creators of the standard always assume the extra work and costs of participating in the definition of the new technology. As result, these companies usually try to impose their decisions, all them based on their own commercial and technical interests. When a committee is formed by dozens of members, each one with its own market and a precedent technological basis, the negotiation process becomes complicated. Mainly when the members are big companies that don't worry about the costs of delaying the release of the new technology up to the infinite.

In contrast to these open standards, other "de facto" standards leaded by a single company producing a one-chip solution get sometimes better results. This is the case of Lonworks, a technology created and promoted by Echelon. But I don't mean that "democratic" open standards have a worse future than proprietary ones. Some open initiatives as CanOpen, Devicenet, EIB, BacNet, etc. are example of collaboration among companies and academic institutions. The secret of the success is maybe in understanding that interoperability is something positive for the market.