RealTime IT News

2006: The Year of Home Controls

In the future war for who will run your home, it's not about who wears the pants, but what technology controls everything you own.

The contenders (so far) are Zigbee, which provides a mesh protocol that runs on top of the IEEE's 802.15.4 wireless specification (in 2.4GHz, just like Wi-Fi); Z-Wave, a proprietary wireless mesh running in the unlicensed 908MHz band; and INSTEON, also a mesh, which uses a dual-band approach on wireless, and also works over home power lines.

All three have their own alliances of vendors who plan to use the technology. The Z-Wave Alliance sports 125 partners, including names like Logitech and Levitron; ZigBee's big names include Motorola and Texas Instruments; INSTEON, created by reseller Smarthome, claims to have 350 developers on board (the developer's kit costs only $99, after all), as well as backward compatibility with X10 technology. INSTEON's latest announced partners include software makers Perceptive Automation and Home Automated Living (HAL).

But not all have a backer like Cisco Systems, a company that's known to turn technologies it funds into de facto standards for the industry. Z-Wave, which is developed by Zensys, got such backing just last week, though they don't say how much. The money will be used to "accelerate development efforts with Cisco's Linksys division to drive the integration of Z-Wave technology into popular Linksys products," according to a statement.

This is a huge step for Denmark-based Z-Wave, and could be a setback for ZigBee, which was largely seen as the home control technology to beat, despite Zensys getting to market sooner.

In an article in TechWorld last year, Chris Johnson, Vice President of Business Development at Zensys, said his competition is "dead in the home space." The investment by Cisco could prove him right.

However, Zensys is the sole proprietor of chips for Z-Wave products. Since ZigBee is an open standard, it has several silicon providers, such as Ember, Freescale, TI and the latest addition, STMicroelectronics. This could be the technology's saving grace.

ZigBee also does more than just home automation, but Cisco's use of Z-Wave may push that technology into new directions to better compete. Only time will tell. Z-Wave's off to a good start, however, winning a CNET Best of CES Award this week.

Still, ZigBee partners continue to pile on. Eaton Corporation recently announced a Home Heartbeat product that uses Zigbee to monitor household systems, everything from water leaks to open doors to who's home at what times, through a variety of sensors. Home Heartbeat can send messages to computers or phones when something goes wrong. Hawking Technologies has a HomeRemote System coming this year, which uses ZigBee sensors to do much the same thing. Hitachi is now working with chipmaker Ember to make new ZigBee sensors as modules for use by other Hitachi business units and other OEMs. Products marketed as "ZigBee Certified" should start appearing this year, all independently tested for interoperability between vendors.

The parent company of INSTEON (profiled here) recently went through a reorganization, putting Smarthome and the SmartLabs R&D and manufacturing arms all under the name SmartLabs to "more accurately reflect its role as a visionary think tank," according to a statement. At the same time, it announced that its first INSTEON chip is available, along with a line of INSTEON home control lighting products called ICON, which they say will be priced almost the same as non-networked lighting products. The first INSTEON Developers and Technology Conference will be held at the tenth Connections: The Digital Home Conference and Showcase, coming in May 2006.

The good news for all these companies: the market for home automation appears to be growing. In-Stat/MDR has predicted that home automation revenues will hit $5.3 billion by 2007.