Amazon’s Ring joined the Z-Wave Alliance this week, while the Zigbee Alliance announced that Amazon’s Echo Show became the 3,000th certified device. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe this market never consolidates. Maybe a kingmaker never emerges and throws its weight around, to find the winner. Maybe Thread actually goes whole-hog and properly merges with Zigbee, instead of just simply parasitically existing and muddying the waters.
It’s worth checking in on the mesh networking world, especially now that Bluetooth Mesh has thrown its hat in the ring, and (would you look at that) not much at all has changed. The low-power approach that enabled so many early smart home designs is now much less the focus of most smart home discussions, as voice-based integrations have come to the fore. There seems much less pressure on brands to have more than a handful of device designs, and perhaps only one of them calls for using these mesh protocols.
When Riot first started covering the smart home sector, the vision for the future was a house filled with dozens of sensors, which would feed data into some sort of centralized decision-making computer, to provide an intelligent system that would control all the equipment in a home. All these would be joined up to provide a highly personalized experience, of a home that adapted to the occupants – enabled by the low-power networks that linked these sensors to the decision maker.
Now, it seems, a smart home constitutes any house that has a voice assistant, to which people can ask trivia questions or set cooking timers. None of the ‘intelligence’ is in the house, and instead exists on gargantuan cloud computing platforms distributed across data centers. Perhaps a connected security camera has been bought, or the occupant has successfully paired a connected thermostat to the assistant, but very few of these smart homes actually contain a battery-powered device like the myriad of sensors first envisioned.
This is problematic, because without batteries, there is no driving force towards these very low power protocols. You can make do with WiFi because you are not battery-constrained. Similarly, the long-range benefits of these protocols, owing to their ability to send messages along multiple hops back to the gateway, is being negated by the rise of home with multiple WiFi gateways. If you don’t need to bounce a message downstairs to the home gateway box, because there is now an access point upstairs, then again, you could make do with WiFi.
WiFi and Bluetooth combo chips have proven popular, but designs that integrate the mesh protocols haven’t really emerged. Sure, Qorvo can sell you a Zigbee chip that would also be able to handle Bluetooth, but if you want an integrated design, you’d be out of luck. You’d need to add a dedicated mesh chip somewhere, and that’s tacking on to your already-stretched BOM cost. USB dongles are a pretty inelegant solution to the integration problem, but again, add to the cost of the design.
This then brings us to the existential chicken-or-egg question. If consumers seem happy without the mesh-enabled vision of the future, do the voice-assistant vendors (chiefly Amazon and Google at this point) ever push to make Zigbee, Z-Wave, Thread, or Bluetooth Mesh, a major selling point? They’ve had three or so years of it, and have not yet, so even as the mesh technologies progress, the market is still just waiting for something big to happen – and there’s still no sign that such an event is round the corner.
Returning to the actual news, Ring (now owned by Amazon), is joining the board of the Z-Wave Alliance. The group now has over 700 members, with 3,000 certified devices on the market, and has shipped over 100mn products globally. A year ago, the Zigbee Alliance was saying 500mn Zigbee chips had been sold, but an unspecified number of those were in remote controls. After a bit of upheaval in the Z-Wave world, when Silicon Labs acquired its inventor Sigma Designs back in April 2018, the Z-Wave Alliance seems unperturbed.
Silicon Labs is a pretty large player in the Zigbee world too, and that deal certainly let it flesh out its offerings in the low-power market. Silicon Labs is also on the board of the Z-Wave Alliance, where Ring now resides alongside ADT, Alarm.com, ASSA ABLOY, Ingersoll Rand, Nexia Intelligence, Jasco Products, Leedarson, LG Uplus, Nortek Security and Control, and Samsung’s SmartThings.
As for Zigbee’s board, the members are Amazon, Comcast, Huawei, The Kroger Co., Landis+Gyr, LEEDARSON, Legrand, MMB Networks, NXP Semiconductors, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Samsung’s SmartThings, Somfy, Texas Instruments, and Wulian.
So then, you’ll spot that Amazon, Leedarson, Silicon Labs, and Samsung’s SmartThings have feet in both camps. As Zigbee and Thread are a bit symbiotic these days, there are a few common members across those two – including NXP, Schneider Electric, Silicon Labs, and Somfy. As for Thread board members that are in the Z-Wave Alliance, the list reads Assa Abloy (via Yale) and Silicon Labs – the latter of which is the only firm to appear in all three.
There is lots more overlap among the regular members, but at the board level, Silicon Labs seems most influential, and given that it went out and bought the most influential Z-Wave firm, it does seem to have an appetite to perhaps steer this mesh-powered ship. Amazon is important too, but the recent Google-Nest reshuffle might have confused Alphabet’s overall vision for Thread – something of a Google offshoot that still hasn’t exactly found commercial success.