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ZigBee: A Different Wireless Technology

Haven't heard much about ZigBee? That's about to change. Our blogger recently caught up on the wireless technology during a chat with the chair of the ZigBee Alliance.

In a world where even the least tech-savvy of users is starting to understand terms like gigabytes and SSID, there are still wireless frameworks that are far from mainstream. ZigBee is a utilitarian and somewhat different wireless technology that isn't on most people's radar--yet.

Back in the late 1990s, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were getting off the ground as adventurous clients rapidly latched on to the power and portability that comes with cutting the cord. Both have evolved as mainstays in the consumer and business worlds alike, and the future continues to look sunny for each. At roughly the same time, another group of wireless-minded folks had sensor networks and building controls in mind. For various reasons, neither Wi-Fi nor Bluetooth were a good fit, and ZigBee was born.

I recently caught up with Bob Heile, who chairs the ZigBee Alliance. Like his colleagues at the Wi-Fi Alliance, Heile's organization is charged with both interoperability testing and certification, as well as driving its part of the wireless world forward. Heile shared the skinny on ZigBee's roots, what makes it advantageous in the right situation, and why consumers should develop an awareness of this oddly named wireless technology.

From a technical perspective, ZigBee's core strengths are the use of very low power, the ability to dynamically form large (sometimes huge) wireless mesh topologies and ridiculously long device battery life, compliments of IEEE 802.15.4 underpinnings. Low cost and low complexity have made ZigBee a solid fit for home automation, building systems' management and medical instrumentation and control. Behind the ZigBee gateway that can interface the topology to a "regular" IP network lives a curious realm of 64-bit MAC-addressed devices that communicate using standards-based protocols that are elegant but unknown to most networkers.

Heile explained how ZigBee may not be flying under the radar for very much longer, now that the Internet of Things gets a fair amount of media mention and machine-to-machine connectivity pushes wireless in new directions. Smart energy is one of the main growth markets for ZigBee devices, and there has been some penetration into the consumer electronics space. (The Sony Bravia television line may be the most well known.)

Right now, ZigBee systems are mostly spun up by professional installers and service providers. As lighting controls and HVAC systems are provisioned in commercial spaces, wireless control has become fairly common. Cable companies are using ZigBee for remote diagnostics and programming of in-home components (unbeknownst to most customers). But Heile also predicts a day when consumers are better in touch with smart energy and self-installed ZigBee home devices, to the point where a bigger market drives down prices, hooks more device makers and raises ZigBee's overall footprint in the wireless world.

Though ZigBee does work in the same 2.4 GHz spectrum as 802.11g/n Wi-Fi devices, it is built to be non-contentious. This is as important as any practical functionality that ZigBee provides, as the 2.4 GHz space continues to be flooded with devices that chip away at Wi-Fi's performance in this busy band.

Sure, a ZigBee dimmer switch may not be as sexy as an Amazon Kindle or some other wireless device, but it has the market cornered on name cuteness. And as residences and commercial buildings alike get smarter, ZigBee will continue to play a leading role.

Disclaimer: I have no business relationship with the ZigBee Alliance. Lee is a Network Engineer and Wireless Technical Lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administrtaion, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronc Warfare ... View Full Bio

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