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ZigBee to keep network market buzzing

A group of leading technology companies will meet this week to further develop an emerging wireless networking technology aimed at home automation.

A group of leading technology companies will meet this week to discuss and further develop an emerging wireless networking technology with an unconventional name, ZigBee.

The ZigBee Alliance, including Honeywell, Invensys, Mitsubishi Electric, Motorola and Philips Electronics, is working on a specification that targets building automation and home automation with low-cost, low-power devices that are expected to last several years on two AA alkaline batteries. With ZigBee, homeowners could build a network that would allow them to wirelessly control everything from lighting fixtures to home security systems.

"There are a mind-boggling number of uses for wireless networking, so we're focusing on the building and home environment," said Venkat Bahl, vice chairman of the alliance. "This is not meant for heavy-duty multimedia or high-quality voice (needs), there are other standards that already do that. We want to focus on simplicity."

The group hopes to have a ZigBee specification ready by early 2004 so that the devices using the new standard will be available by the middle of that year, Bahl said. The market for ZigBee products is estimated to start at 410,000 units and $9 million in 2003 and then grow to 62 million units and $1.3 billion in 2007, according to data from Wireless Data Research Group.

The new specification joins Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Ultrawideband, which are all aiming to cut the cords between devices that communicate with one another as part of a network. One of the key attractions for all of these technologies is that they are all standards, so companies and consumers will know that devices using a particular standard should be able to work together, increasing the usefulness and value of a device.

Most industry watchers believe there won't be a single wireless networking standard. "We see many combinations in the future," said Philips Semiconductor Chief Executive Scott McGregor. "It's logical to combine them. We're supporting a number of them, and whichever ones win out, we play. The goal is to make it simple for consumers so that connected devices just work."

Philips has teamed with Sony to jointly create a radio-frequency technology, called "Near Field Communication" (NFC), as well as jointly manufacture consumer devices that will use it. Philips also has significant investments in Wi-Fi. Late last year its semiconductor division purchased wireless chip designer Systemonic.

ZigBee is the offspring of a wireless format that companies are no longer supporting, HomeRF. The ZigBee specification is a combination of HomeRF Lite and the 802.15.4 specification. The spec operates in the 2.4GHz radio band--the same band as the 802.11b standard, microwaves and cordless phones--over 16 channels. It is capable of connecting 255 devices per network. The spec supports data transmission rates of up to 250kbps at a range of up to 30 meters. ZigBee's technology is slower than 802.11b, at 11 megabits per second, and Bluetooth, at 1mbps, but it consumes significantly less power, according to Bahl.