24 July 2008

Can ZigBee succeed?

The killer app for ZigBee is energy management. That's according to Bob Metcalfe, to whom I've just been talking in Boston, at a gathering of the Metro Ethernet Forum.

Metcalfe is the inventor of Ethernet, the physical underpinning of pretty much every network on the planet, from your home Wi-Fi to the high-speed interconnects used in data centres and the international links that tie the world's telecommunications together.

Metcalfe's been a partner in VC firm Polaris Ventures since 2001, and one of his current projects is Amber Wireless, a company that develops ZigBee components. "As CSR is to Bluetooth, so Amber will be to Zigbee", was his comment.

CSR? Your mobile phone probably has a CSR-branded Bluetooth chip inside it -- the company claims to dominate the market for Bluetooth silicon.

So what's ZigBee? It's a 2.4GHz wireless technology that's designed to connect embedded devices. We're talking light switches, environmental sensors, solenoids and so on -- devices that currently tend to work standalone and whose operating principles are based on whatever is programmed into them at design time.

Metcalfe's a network guy so his take is that such devices need to be connected, not just for control purposes, which was the original rationale for the development of Zigbee, but also to manage their energy consumption.

It's probably fair to say that, since customers for ZigBee are designers and manufacturers of embedded devices, unless you're one of those, chances are you won't hear much about it. But Metcalfe's argument for ZigBee's likelihood of success is that there are some 10 billion embedded devices out there -- even more than the current tally of mobile phones.

Is he right? With the world now alert to the need for energy savings, it's possible. Metcalfe freely admits that the Ethernet label is slapped for marketing reasons on pretty much any networking technology these days, so the Ethernet name has in effect acquired a life that doesn't have a direct connection with Metcalfe's invention. So Ethernet's success outside of the local area network isn't all Metcalfe's doing.

As a predictor of the future too, his track record is mixed: he once reckoned that the Internet would be dead by 1996.

But then, no futurologist or analyst has ever been 100 percent correct and, on the energy front, it's more likely that Metcalfe is pretty much on the button. Whether Zigbee becomes a core technology in the struggle to sustain human activity and energy consumption on an overcrowded planet remains to be seen.

But his views on the future importance of video (plug, plug) must surely be spot-on though...

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