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Home automation players lock horns...

...and garage doors, fridges, windows

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This week, two wireless home automation technology groups held showcase events in two different Nordic capitals. And their products both begin with a ‘Z’.

Both companies sell low power radio networks cheap enough to install all over your house.

Yesterday ZigBee alliance showcased its products in Oslo, attended by Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, who is an investor in one of the leading ZigBee chip providers, Ember.

The day before, Zensys held an event in Copenhagen where they showcased their rather more established wireless technology, Z-Wave.

The possible applications of these two are almost endless. If you’re the sort of person who continually worries that you’ve left the iron on, a ZigBee or Z-Wave-enabled plug or socket could let you monitor it through your mobile phone.

It could open your garage door, switch on your hot tub, detect burglars, or keep an eye on your frail grandparents.

One of the most compelling applications could well be power monitoring. Lights in empty rooms could be switched off, or energy companies could turn down everyone’s aircon units if they were running close to a brown-out, very handy in backward areas where energy supply is a little shaky - like California.

All these ideas have been around since the Jetsons, and have been demoed in endless ‘home of the future’ scenarios before.

But ZigBee and Z-Wave are finally starting to arrive in products which ordinary homeowners can buy.

In technology terms, the two have a lot of similarities. They’re both mesh radio standards, designed for low-power applications for monitoring and control.

They transmit very small amounts of data at very low power, so that the devices they’re connecting can keep running for several years without having their batteries replaced.

Zensys has the lead in technology terms - it has been shipping a single-chip solution since 2002, and it’s about half the price of ZigBee chips from Ember, which cost $5.

It also uses a less crowded piece of radio spectrum, 868MHz in Europe and 906MHz in the US, whereas ZigBee uses the busy 2.4GHz used by Bluetooth, DECT and 802.11b.

Zensys also has a raft of companies already using its technology, including some of the biggest makers of high-end lighting, garage doors and so forth.

Zensys is more focused on the home automation market, whereas ZigBee is also targeted at industry, science, agriculture, and even the military.

Nonetheless, some home automation companies have announced ZigBee products, including Eaton and Control4.

However, Z-Wave is still pretty close to its roots as a proprietary product. “It is an open standard because we licence it on non-discriminatory terms,” says Zensys vice president Chris Johnson.

A second silicon supplier is due to announce later this year, he says, but they still have to pay licensing fees to Zensys to use the technology.

ZigBee, on the other hand, is a genuine standard, with all the problems that entails. It’s slower to market - The first release, ZigBee 1.0, was agreed this year – but it should give manufacturers a greater choice.

Intel is to be playing an interestingly ambiguous role in the dispute. The chip giant is a powerful champion of wireless technologies, with both wi-fi and Wimax benefiting from its patronage.

Officially, the company is a supporter of both, though Intel Capital is an investor in Zensys, and Intel is not a member of the ZigBee alliance. An Intel spokesperson said that this was because the company is not happy with the ZigBee alliance’s attitude to intellectual property.

Security is also likely to be a tough nut to crack. Without some robust security, a skilful practical joker could terrorise a ZigBee or Zensys-enabled home with devastating Poltergeist-style drive-by hacks, turning lights on an off at will, sending garage doors into a frenzy, or setting the hot tub thermostat to 100 degrees centigrade.

A burglar alarm which could be disabled with a strong burst of 2.4 GHz noise wouldn’t help the homeowners sleep more easily.

However, there are also question marks about interoperability. Bluetooth was beset with such problems in its early years, as different equipment on the same so-called standard wouldn’t talk to each other.

Garage door buyers are not used to pondering the compatibility of software stacks and device protocols, and will be less tolerant than high-end phone users of arbitrary incompatibility.

The fact that there are already two systems competing for this market doesn’t make the homeowner’s life any easier.

“It’s not a good start when you already have conflicting standards,” says Ovum analyst Elsa Lion. “It is as if, when Bluetooth started, Nokia had started developing on a different standard to Ericsson.”

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