ZigBee Creates Single, Unified Spec for Internet of Things

The ZigBee Alliance is bringing together the various versions into ZigBee 3.0 at a time when other groups are creating IoT frameworks.

Internet of things

The ZigBee Alliance, which for about a decade has offered a low-power wireless standard for a broad range of systems, is bringing all those technologies together under a single standard that officials say will offer interoperability for the billions of devices that will make up the Internet of things.

The alliance, which includes an array of tech companies and device makers as members, announced ZigBee 3.0 Nov. 18, saying the new standard will enable the devices on the Internet of things (IoT)—from smart home appliances and connected lighting to health care systems and security appliances—to communicate and interoperate. The standard, which until now was divided into different versions for disparate industries, is currently used in millions of devices, according to the group.

Now, organizations will be able to use the unified standard in whatever smart products they're creating, according to Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance.

"Lessons learned by Alliance members when taking products to market around the world have allowed us to unify our application standards into a single standard," Richardson said in a statement." ZigBee 3.0 will allow product developers to take advantage of ZigBee's unique features such as mesh networking and Green Power to deliver highly reliable, secure, low-power, low-cost solutions to any market."

The unified standard will bring together ZigBee versions for home automation, lighting, building automation, retail services, health care and telecommunications.

The unification of the standard comes after a number of industry consortiums have cropped up over the past year to create open platforms for enabling IoT devices and systems to communicate with each other. The AllSeen Alliance, a project under the auspices of the Linux Foundation and launched 11 months ago, is creating a software framework based on the AllJoyn specification developed by Qualcomm researchers.

In July, two more groups were formed—the Open Internet Consortium (OIC), led by the likes of Dell, Intel and Samsung, and the Thread Group, launched by Samsung, ARM and Google's Nest Labs, among others, which is leveraging a spec called Thread. There also is the Industrial Internet Consortium, which is focused on commercial systems.

The IoT is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years. Cisco Systems officials have said there are about 25 billion connected devices now, and that will double by 2020. For the IoT to work as envisioned, these devices and systems will need to be able to communicate and interoperate with each other. The various standards groups are taking slightly different approaches to make this happen.

ZigBee 3.0 is based on the IEEE 802.15.4 spec and uses ZigBee PRO networking to ensure communication capabilities in the lowest-powered devices, according to the Alliance.

In a report last month, analysts with ABI Research said the number of devices supporting 802.15.4 will increase five times over the next five years, and due to support from chipset makers like Freescale and Texas Instruments, 802.15.4-based device shipments will jump from 206 million this year to more than 730 million in 2019.

ZigBee-enabled devices—which account for 74 percent of the market—will continue to be the leader in the space, hitting more than 350 million in annual shipments by 2019. ZigBee will be particularly strong in home automation, where ZigBee shipments will grow from 9 percent of the space to 28 percent in 2019.

However, the ABI analysts also said ZigBee will see growing challenges from 6LoWPAN-based devices, including Thread, which is backed by Google. Thread is IPv6-enabled, and there is a growing demand for IP functionalities, and there is a growing belief in the industry that the market will consolidate around 6LoWPAN, they said.

"One of the challenges facing ZigBee is the current confusion between the numerous different profiles targeting different applications, making interoperability between heterogeneous ZigBee nodes and applications very difficult," ABI Senior Analyst Andrew Zignani said in a statement. "The industry is therefore increasingly turning toward IP-based standards to address these issues."