ZigBee future under doubt

Low-power wireless technology, ZigBee, is in danger of succumbing to the fragmentation so far avoided by standards-based specifications such as Wi-Fi and WiMax, according to market researchers.

The rapid spread of proprietary products based on the same standard as ZigBee - IEEE 802.15.4 - means ZigBee will only make up about 10 per cent of the 802.15.4 market in five years' time, according to a recent study from West Technology Research Solutions (WTRS).

At the same time, investors led by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, have pumped millions of pounds into Ember, one of the leading companies pushing ZigBee.

Like Wi-Fi, ZigBee is an interoperability specification based on an IEEE standard. But while most 802.11b or 802.11g products, for example, also adhere to the Wi-Fi specification, the same isn't true for ZigBee, which isn't even expected to be complete until later this year.

In the meantime, manufacturers are already coming out with proprietary products based on 802.15.4, ratified last year.

ZigBee is designed to connect the billions of devices that contain micro-controllers but aren't network-enabled, such as home appliances, industrial automation and building security.

It uses low data transmission speeds but also consumes very little power, meaning ZigBee batteries could last long periods of time.

Similar pre-release issues have affected emerging networking standards such as 802.11g, but so far manufacturers' commitment to Wi-Fi interoperability has prevented serious fragmentation. Not so with ZigBee: "The industry faces a high risk of marketplace fragmentation and likelihood for market dominance by proprietary solutions based on the 802.15.4 IEEE standard," the WTRS report said.

Maneouvres by proprietary vendors have led WTRS to downgrade its projections for ZigBee's share of the 802.15.4 market since its last report. The firm claims 19 million chipsets will ship in 2006, or 19.7 per cent of the 802.15.4 market, growing to 123 million units in 2009, or 10.2 per cent of the market.

"Instead of becoming a standard for low data rate network environments, ZigBee is in danger of evolving into simply one among many proprietary options," WTRS principal analyst, Kirsten West, said. "The proliferation of proprietary 802.15.4 solutions in advance of the availability of the ZigBee standard has effectively marginalised the overall market opportunity for ZigBee."

Other analysts are more bullish on ZigBee's prospects, with ABI Research projecting 80 million ZigBee chipsets will ship in 2006, mainly because of a strong potential market for home networking, with the industrial market growing later on.

Investors appear unfazed by ZigBee's fragmentation, with Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital leading a $US25 million investment into Ember last week.

Ember is one of ZigBee's main backers, and the ZigBee Alliance uses Ember's chip architecture to test specification interoperability, according to the company.

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