“There I was enjoying the Z-Wave Summit in Oklahoma City, with more than 100 member companies represented,” says IoT consultant Avi Rosenthal, “when Amazon announced it was adopting ZigBee for the new Echo Plus smart-home hub.”
Huh? While he and other Z-Wave types were reveling in their vast collective, Amazon announced a partnership with a group that has far fewer revelers.
First, Rosenthal and I both congratulate Amazon for releasing a slew of exciting products, continuing its streak of leadership in the voice-controlled connected home.
“I have a house full of Alexa devices,” Rosenthal says, “and will probably buy at least one of every new device they ship. The company certainly has set the bar for the holiday shopping season.”
There had been plenty of rumors about a new Echo device doubling as a home automation hub. Other “smart speaker” manufacturers had announced more smart-home connectivity, so the smart-home industry waited nervously to see which protocol Amazon would pick for local connectivity (as opposed to cloud-to-cloud integration).
“Unfortunately, Amazon picked the wrong horse with ZigBee,” Rosenthal says.
ZigBee's Not So Bad, But …
What's so wrong with ZigBee? It’s been around for a while. It's a very robust home-automation protocol, trusted by the utility industry, which has deployed it in 10s of millions of smart meters. It is arguably the preferred protocol for commercial building controls. Like Z-Wave, it offers efficient two-way communications, low-latency, and provisions to optimize battery life.
Also, utilizing 802.15.4 radios and operating at 2.4 GHz, ZigBee can more readily share silicon with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Thread and other home-automation technologies. By the way, 2.4 GHz spectrum is mostly available worldwide for home technology, whereas Z-Wave operates at 900 MHz in the U.S., requiring a separate 2.4 GHz SKU for other parts of the world.
But ZigBee has a few issues that limit its appeal to the smart-home market.
“First, not all ZigBee products interoperate with every other ZigBee device,” Rosenthal says. “Echo Plus customers won't just be able to go out and buy any ol' ZigBee device.”
The result will be a heavily curated group of devices that work with Echo Plus. Not that there’s anything wrong with curation. It has many benefits. Even Comcast vets and curates the ZigBee devices approved for Xfinity Home.
For a mass-market DIY product like Echo Plus, however, a lack of interoperability could easily confuse consumers … as if they weren't confused enough about smart-home integration.
So far, some 2,100 Z-Wave devices from 700 manufacturers are certified for interoperability, but thousands more are, in fact, interoperable across 70 million products deployed since 2001.
Paucity of ZigBee Products
The second issue of Amazon picking the “wrong” home-automation protocol is the relative paucity of generic ZigBee products on the market.
Of note, virtually all of those thousands of Z-Wave devices are interoperable out-of-the-box. On the other hand, Echo Plus only works with about 75 products from just 11 manufacturers right now.
“In the press release announcing the new Echo products,” Rosenthal points out, “Amazon was very proud to announce 'more than a hundred compatible devices' Wouldn’t it have been cooler to boast thousands of compatible devices instead?”
Besides the sheer volume of interoperable products, Z-Wave offers some significant features that ZigBee does not.
First is security. Today Z-Wave, with its S2 security framework, is the only mesh-networking protocol UL-approved for life-safety applications. (ZigBee is approved for point-to-point, not mesh, and we assume the same for Thread + Weave, implemented in Nest Secure.) There are numerous benefits for using UL-certified mesh-networking communications for security.
(CORRECTION: A UL spokesperson confirms that Thread + Weave is UL-approved for life-safety applications using a mesh topology.)
The second thing is SmartStart, a new feature for “pre-configuring devices in the cloud so they can 'just connect' at the customer premises,” Rosenthal explains. “No other protocol can enable that feature out of the box.”
Having said that, Echo Plus seems to offer a similar feature for the handful of “Simple Setup” devices it supports. Amazon says these products can be enrolled into the system simply by saying, “Alexa, discover my devices.”
That's a sweet feature, but presumably one that places a burden on device manufacturers to comply, as in the case of Apple's MFi/Homekit program. (Z-Wave manufacturers also face a “burden” with SmartStart, but the feature isn't required.)
“Even assuming ZigBee offered all the great features of Z-Wave,” Rosenthal says, “Amazon’s decision simply defies business logic.”
Amazon is a retail business. It makes money by selling lots of things. Z-Wave has more interoperable things to sell than ZigBee … by an order of magnitude.
Ergo, Amazon should adopt Z-Wave for Echo Plus in order to drive more sales through amazon.com.
And if Amazon Wants a Network of Certified Pros …
In September, Amazon was at CEDIA, the trade show for home-technology installers, with a giant booth, keynote presentation, new service to highlight CEDIA dealers on amazon.com, and sponsorship of all CEDIA training.
The previous year, at CEDIA 2016, Alexa Smart Home leader Charlie Kindel explained why Amazon had such a large presence at that show, including an Alexa smart home on the show floor, and the opening keynote.
“Clearly, there is a lot of usage in the DIY space,” he told CE Pro. “But the big opportunity is where there is more of a total home solution, where customers would rather a pro come in to help with some of the more mundane configurations.”
Truly Amazon believes the population of smart-home DIYs is just not that big right now, and in any case they pose a major tech-support burden.
“They are practically begging our industry to become a part of their world.” Rosenthal says. “And I really think there's a growing number of dealers — not to mention manufacturers and the CEDIA organization itself — that are eager to take a closer look.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to the pro channel, “Amazon took a big step backwards,” Rosenthal says.
Z-Wave is today, and always has been, the leading home-automation protocol among smart-home pros.
ZigBee has never been a part of CEDIA, either in mindshare or in physical presence. The CEDIA community sees only proprietary versions of ZigBee deployed in higher-end systems like Control4 and Crestron. There has never been a push for professional installers to adopt ZigBee-enabled hubs or end devices.
On the other hand, Z-Wave has exhibited at CEDIA for many years with large pavilions featuring dozens of partners. Also, Z-Wave-compatible systems can be found in tens of partner booths throughout the show.
The Z-Wave Alliance provides standing-room-only training for home-technology pros, and offers the award-winning Z-Wave ToolBox for remotely diagnosing and monitoring Z-Wave mesh networks.
If Amazon wants the smart-home pros, they should look to Z-Wave. More importantly, if Amazon wants to sell more things, they should push Z-Wave.
Google, Nest, Amazon, Apple Homekit, Thread, Weave, Z-Wave, ZigBee, SmartStart, Simple Setup …
All the confusion is a great thing for smart-home pros.
As Nest product lead Mike Soucie tells CE Pro, “[T]here is still a level of complexity that only integrators and partners can really solve.”
Postscript: Google, Nest, Thread, Weave
For even less interoperability, look to sister companies Google and Nest, which require the cloud for almost all third-party integrations.
For local integration, rather than using ZigBee or Z-Wave, Nest has employed its own protocols — the networking layer that inspired Thread, and Nest's own home-automation protocol called Weave. Nest has implemented these technologies in all of its products including thermostats, smoke/CO detectors, cameras, Hello video doorbell, and Nest Secure alarm system, since the very first product.
While Nest has exposed some of its home-automation technology to third-party providers since 2015 via OpenWeave, only one manufacturer has taken the bait – Yale with its Linus lock, expected to ship in 2018.
Oddly enough, Nest sibling Google has not incorporated Thread or Weave (or ZigBee or Z-Wave) in its Google Home hubs, including the original product, the new Max and Mini, and the Google Wifi mesh-networking system — even though Google and Nest are really starting to look like a unified organization with smart-home strategies in alignment.
Unlike the ZigBee-enabled Amazon Echo Plus, the Google products will continue for now to rely on the cloud for integration with third-party smart devices, including the entire Nest ecosystem.
So in that regard, Amazon prevails with ZigBee.
Even so, this piece isn't about interoperability per se. It's about Amazon's odd decision to go with ZigBee when it could sell far more devices with Z-Wave, given that it's an e-commerce company after all.
Avi Rosenthal, principal of IoT Consulting, LLC, is a 20-year veteran in the IT and home-technology fields.