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The Internet of Things becomes the Game of Thrones in standards war

Z-Wave thinks it's VHS to opponent's Betamax

There is an "internet of things" standards war coming and Z-Wave will emerge triumphant, at least according to two of its leading advocates.

Despite a number of high-profile setbacks in recent weeks, interim chair of the Z-Wave Alliance Raoul Wijgergangs and Alliance Board member Avi Rosenthal are (as you'd expect) confident that the standard they back will win out over rivals ZigBee, Thread, and Bluetooth.

"We have real products and real brands and are going faster than ever before," argued Wijgergangs who is also a vice-president at Sigma Designs, which owns the Z-Wave standard. He points out the new kid on the block, Google-backed standard Thread, has very little information about it, has plans for an initial specification in June and any products will be at least a year away.

Rosenthal draws parallels with the famous VHS and Betamax video format war where the "technically superior" Betamax system was wiped out when manufacturers and content companies went with VHS.

"The format was vetted out by the consumer," he told us. "And at the moment, the market has spoken. Consumers don't care what format products use, they just want them to work."

Is this really a VHS/Betamax style battle we ask? "In my personal opinion," Rosenthal highlights (he is a VP at Nortek and oversees home security and control products that run Z-Wave), "there will be a prevailing standard at some point. But it is going to take years, maybe 5-7 years, and I expect the standards will change over time."

War, red in bit and byte

The so-called "internet of things" market is set to explode over the next few years as new technologies are pulled into both homes (and offices, factories etc) and used to set off a new wave of semi-automated tasks. The fact that the internet and smartphones are now ubiquitous has given "home automation" a much-needed boost.

Alongside big computing names like Intel, Samsung and IBM, the internet giants are also getting involved: Google bought the smart thermostat Nest, and Apple will soon release its HomeKit software. Add to that the Silicon Valley startup scene, which has decided homes are ripe for innovative new products.

But there remains a big sticking point: which standard should manufacturers use? And here they are spoiled for choice: the limited Bluetooth standard; power hungry Wi-Fi; new standard Thread; or one of the two low-power mesh standards, ZigBee or Z-Wave?

The decision is a critical one for the design of equipment and its cost, so the standards war is real since they are all designed to do pretty much the same thing, but accounting for every standard would make products more expensive to manufacture.

While Z-Wave has the largest installed base of products, it has had a bit of a battering recently with the loss of the Z-Wave Alliance's chair to rival Zigbee, seen teh launch of a new IoT chipset from Samsung called Artik that does not include the standard, and the announcement that Thread will work with Zigbee but seemingly not Z-Wave.

What everyone in the industry does appear to agree on is that all IoT systems will have to work seamlessly with the internet protocol (IP). "The IP standard will become ubiquitous," agrees Rosenthal. "It is the lowest common denominator and as things evolve it won’t just be lights in my house, we have to move to a unified layer and IP lends itself to that."

The issue is: what standard will all the products in your house use to communicate with one another before connecting through IP to everything else?

And it will be…?

The answer as to who will win a standards war often has little to do with the actual standard and more to do with how it is managed.

On one level, Z-Wave is at a major disadvantage: it is not an open protocol in that Sigma Designs owns the intellectual property and it manufacturers the chips and licenses the right to use it (there is currently only one other licensed Z-Wave chip manufacturer).

Like the other big, proprietary standard in the IoT world Z-Wave allows others to develop products with its standards but that comes with a cost and with tight rules.

On the other side are more open standards, which fit more with the internet ethos and history. ZigBee is an open standard (although it has so far refused to make its license compatible with GPL), and Threraqd will also so presumably be. Bluetooth likewise, although Bluetooth has some other issues around networking.

But when it comes to hardware and formats, the most open or even the best may not be the deciding factors, as we have see with: VHS/Betamax; DAT/cassette tapes; and HD-DVD/Blu-Ray.

The winner in always whose products get used the most. And as Rosenthal explains, there are some clear advantages to manufacturers to using Z-Wave. "Interoperability is the reason that Z-Wave is successful. To be instantly compatible with everything else is a huge advantage."

He also explains that when his company decided to make a Z-Wave compatible garage door opener, there were able to create and approve a new command structure in less than 60 days. "With ZigBee that would take around six to eight months," he claims

Z-Wave also has a 90 per cent market share in the home control market so, for Nortek at least "the momentum is there and as a manufacturer you will choose the path of least resistance."

Wijgergangs also highlights another advantage of the Z-Wave spec - by using the 900MHz frequency, rather than ZigBee's (and WiFi's and Thread's) 2.5GHz frequency, the spectrum is less cluttered. And that can translate to significantly less power usage as it reduces the number of retries needed to send data.

The fact that there are firm rules around Z-Wave is actually an advantage, claims Rosenthal. "It is easier to design for as there are more rules telling you how to do it."

That point may stick in the craw of Silicon Valley, which likes to be able to push at boundaries. But at the same time, unless companies find dramatically better ways to send data over short distances with low power consumption, then pragmatic realities are likely to drive the creation of products.

The other side

Regardless of Z-Wave's benefits, there are some pointers in the opposite direction. Wijgergangs plays down the fact that Samsung's new IoT Artik chip don't include Z-Wave by arguing that the chips are "all about mobile devices" and that he doesn't think there is a big role for mobile devices in the smart home.

"When you are away from your home, you still need home control. You can't do that if the radio is only in your phone." He also points out that the Artik chips will cost $30-40 "and with a $15 lightbulb that's not going to play."

Note: that doesn't mean you can't use your phone over the internet to connect with your home devices.

As for an assumed future where Z-Wave has won the standards war - how would that look? According to two of its main advocates, the standard would simply be included in your home router or cable box and interact with the products in your house. You would then access them and their data through other devices that talk to that hub and send and store information in the cloud.

Where could Z-Wave fall down? Rosenthal prods Wijgergangs by noting that he could see Sigma Designs becoming more of a licensing company that the main chip manufacturer.

Wijgergangs appears to recognize that for Z-Wave to stand up to the competition that it also the likely route, noting that the CD format - one of the few to achieve almost universal acceptance without a huge format fight - was licensed widely by Phillips in order to gain widespread acceptance. Z-Wave, he said, would "follow that model of success".

What Z-Wave and its backers are counting on however is that its installed base is enough to drive a big uptake with consumers and then effective market dominance, making the standards battle largely moot.

That is not accounting for the many innovative and market-shifting companies that are currently lined up to go the other direction however. Z-Wave may have the majority of the market right now, but that market is expected to explode in just the next 12 months. This time next year, it's not hard to imagine the same argument about installed base being used by Z-Wave rivals.

It may be VHS versus Betamax - but right up until it threw in the towel, Betamax could have sworn that it was going to win. And the vast majority of articles like this one would have agreed. ®

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