Where Are ZigBee and Wireless USB?Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Where Are ZigBee and Wireless USB?
Wireless is the last mile, or the last 300 feet, or in the case of Bluetooth and other short-range communications, the last 30 feet. Wireless has been changing our lives and there is a lot more coming, even if some developments we have been waiting for seem to be taking a long time to make it to market.
I saw my first chipset for Wireless USB 2.0 four years ago at a meeting at CES. I thought the idea was pretty cool then-using ultra-wideband wireless to build a set of products that mimic the usability of USB 2.0. This would mean fast data speeds, easy connections, awareness of each device as it is plugged in, fast data exchange rates, and voice. I envisioned Wireless USB becoming a wireless standard built into a wide variety of devices making our wireless wide-area devices more capable in local-area settings, and perhaps providing the ability to communicate with a navigation screen in our car, sync our music between our car and our computer when we park in our garage, and a host of other possibilities.
But so far, the only Wireless USB 2.0 devices I can find on the market are expansion devices for home computers. Instead of plugging in a USB hub, we can now connect wirelessly, which is a pretty good idea, but where are the rest of the Wireless USB 2.0 devices and why are they taking so long to come to market? At one point, the Bluetooth and Wireless USB communities were working together to incorporate many of the Bluetooth features and functions into Wireless USB. However, when I went to the Wireless USB organization website, I found a list of products that includes lots of silicon, lots of hubs, some cable assemblies (whatever they are), some flash drives, and other storage components, all aimed at the computer world. I could not find a single Wireless USB device that has been certified for use with a wide-area mobile device.
I did find that the organization is already working on Wireless USB 3.0 and that the members read like a Who's Who of the computer/chip world-but there are no wireless companies listed. Perhaps that is one reason Wireless USB has not yet been deployed in the wireless world. If all of the products are designed for desktop and notebook computers, I suspect the power requirements of this technology are such that it is not yet suitable for wireless handheld devices. Perhaps if the wireless community became involved, lower-powered versions of the products could be developed. After all, one of the selling points for ultra-wideband wireless from the beginning was that it consumed very little power.
ZigBee has also been around for a long time. As with Wireless USB, I saw the first demo of ZigBee many years ago at CES. ZigBee is a short-range system to control devices such as lights, heating and air conditioning, and other home and business devices. This is a great advancement over X-10 types of products that use wireless signaling over home power lines. ZigBee is totally wireless and each light switch is also a repeater, so the range of the system is expandable over large houses and businesses.
There are many uses for ZigBee. For example, think about all the lights in a ballroom that are, today, controlled by rows of switches and the lights are turned on, dimmed, or turned off in rows. Enter ZigBee, which would enable control of all of the lights in groups or individually depending on the program, providing for more flexibility and making it much less expensive to wire such areas in the future.
I have been waiting for ZigBee for a few years now. My home is already "smart" in many ways. When we added a second floor and rebuilt most of the first floor, I pulled miles of wires for networks, video, speakers, and other uses. Then I added X-10 control to some of our lights. I knew at the time that I would want to replace as many of the wires as possible with ZigBee, but I wasn't sure when it would be available.
I have been waiting ever since, and today I went to the ZigBee Alliance website and looked at the products that have been certified to date. I was somewhat amazed-I have never seen so many thermostats for heating and cooling in my life, but nothing in the way of home lighting, appliance control, or other devices. It appears as though the ZigBee folks have decided that their niche is in heating and cooling and not the other controls for smart homes. Or perhaps the lighting folks are moving slowly because there are a couple of other standards that have found their way into the market. One of these is Insteon, sold only by Smarthome. From what I can tell, it is a new and improved version of wireless over power lines (X-10) since the Insteon controllers are also capable of running existing X-10 devices.
Both ZigBee and Wireless USB 2.0 or 3.0 should have roared into the market. Wireless USB is good for use between audio and video components and, in fact, one of the demos I saw at CES had a TV hanging on a wall with only a Wireless USB box and a power cord. The audio and video feeds were being provided via Wireless USB 2.0 and they worked well. Another demo using the same technology, which I really want in my smart home, is ultra-wideband over standard TV cable. This will give me the capability of running HD video and audio anywhere my cable wires go. Today I am using some very expensive HDMI to Ethernet converters, but I could do the job easier and less expensively if these products would only make their way to market.
I know that marketing tends to be overly optimistic when it comes to ship dates, however, I cannot believe it is taking this long to bring both Wireless USB 2.0 and ZigBee into the marketplace. It took a long time for Bluetooth, but it finally happened, so I guess I need to be more patient. But, like everyone else's, my life has been changed by wide-area voice and data services and Wi-Fi hotspots in my home, office, and at airports. Now I want to use Wireless USB to provide a link between my wide-area wireless devices and other devices, and I want to use ZigBee to make my smart home an even smarter home. I am certainly glad I haven't been standing in line in front of a store waiting for these two technologies to arrive.
Andrew M. Seybold