Can proprietary home networking technology Z-Wave catch up to its standards-based rival ZigBee in the home energy management field? Despite plenty evidence to the contrary, Z-Wave supporters say yes — and a host of new corporate projects and partnerships backs those sentiments up.
ZigBee boosters can be forgiven for dismissing those claims about Z-Wave, of course. ZigBee has a clear lead in U.S. smart meter and home area network plans, with tens of millions of chips and modules being made by multiple vendors for dozens of device partners. Z-Wave, a proprietary technology with chips made by a single vendor, may have prominent members in its Z-Wave Alliance — ADT, Black & Decker, Danfoss, Leviton and Ingersoll Rand among them. But the ZigBee Alliance has most of the big smart grid companies and utilities on board, as well as General Electric, which has named ZigBee its favorite wireless technology for its energy-smart home plans.
Even so, Sigma Designs, which acquired Z-Wave chipmaker Zensys in 2008, says a host of recent home automation announcements could put Z-Wave back in the running:
- Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo is planning a Z-Wave-based home energy power sensing devices with home routers from Sumitomo. Japan’s government requires home automation systems to run at frequencies of under 1 gigahertz, which fits Z-Wave but could exclude ZigBee, which runs at 2.4 gigahertz, Michael Weissman, Sigma’s vice president of corporate marketing, told me in an interview last week.
- Verizon has been talking about home energy management offerings for years without rolling out products. But according to September statements from Ann Shaub, Verizon director of program management, it plans a home networking offering using Z-Wave to launch as early as the first quarter of 2011.
- In early December, Motorola bought Z-Wave Alliance member 4Home, a startup with backing from Verizon. Motorola hasn’t yet staked a claim in home energy networking, so its 4Home acquisition may presage a play to provide Verizon or others with Z-Wave-compliant products.
Add up all these announcements, and it looks like Z-Wave continues to gain traction in home energy automation and networking, though perhaps not at ZigBee’s breakneck pace. Of course, there’s no reason home energy management can’t use both technologies. Palo Alto, Calif.-based iControl, a home energy networking startup with backing from Kleiner Perkins, ADT, GE and Comcast, uses Z-Wave for devices sold with security giant ADT’s Pulse program. But in November, iControl announced a merger with rival home automation provider uControl, which uses ZigBee.
It’s likely that companies in the space want to be prepared to operate in a variety of networking environments, which could be leading a number of big players to hedge their bets. It’s also important to note that Z-Wave has about 250 home automation products on the market, compared to ZigBee’s 100 certified devices. That means that, while ZigBee has pole position in energy-specific home networking, Z-Wave has a lead in overall home automation and networking.
In other words, if energy is the Trojan Horse opening homes to broader automation and networking, ZigBee could be expected to retain its lead. But if energy ends up being mainly an add-on to existing channels to market, Z-Wave might have an advantage. I honestly don’t know which approach might emerge as the leader in the nascent home energy management market — or whether we’ll see hybrid models or new networking options taking over. But it will certainly be interesting to watch the competition unfold.