While the home automation industry and the concept of a smart home have been around for a good while, there’s one glaring problem that we haven’t yet solved – compatibility. There are quite a lot of brands that make smart home devices, from home security systems to connected home appliances, and all of them want you to buy their complete lineup instead of combining things as it suits you. This leads to some of them using proprietary standards that don’t work with anything else, just to lock you in their own ecosystem.
Now, to some extent, we’ve solved this. Amazon Alexa and Google Home, for example, can act as hubs for devices made by a variety of different manufacturers. You can get a camera by one manufacturer, smart plugs from another, and smart lights from a third, and then use your Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker to control all of them with your voice – simple as that.
And even though this is quite an improvement, we’ve still got a long way to go. One of the main goals of home automation is to have a unified home which adds convenience and makes your life easier, and we aren’t really there yet. But that’s about to change.
Zigbee vs Z-Wave
One of the easiest ways of getting a unified ecosystem is to use the same communication standard for all devices. This would enable any device to talk to any other device, as well as to that one central hub. And while that’s not happening now, it will be in a short while.
So, what communication standard would we use? There are currently two that are very suitable for such use, Zigbee and Z-Wave, which are pretty similar, yet have some key differentiating aspects.
The key thing to know is that both make use of a mesh network. Unlike a star network, like Wi-Fi, every device communicates with each other. This means that they can work as repeaters, work around obstacles, and cover quite a lot of distance. Z-Wave is a bit limited in this regard, because you have a maximum of four hops between the main controlling device and the final device, while Zigbee doesn’t have such limitations. There’s also the maximum device limit, which is around 232 for Z-Wave, and around 65 thousand for Zigbee.
Z-Wave does have one major advantage, however, because it’s a proprietary technology that is controlled by an alliance. If a device is Z-Wave certified, it will definitely work with other Z-Wave certified devices, which goes a long way towards unification. On the other hand, with Zigbee, you have both hardware and software certification. If one is certified, but not the other, you have obvious problems.
However, the certification issue is something that can be easily resolved by devices being certified both in terms of hardware and software. On the other hand, the maximum device limit and the maximum hops are limitations that can’t be solved so easily, which is why Zigbee is the protocol that will lead to a unified smart home ecosystem.
Project Connected Home over IP
A couple of months ago, Amazon, Google, and Apple, along with the Zigbee Alliance, announced that a new working group will develop and promote a new connectivity standard that will maximize compatibility among devices. Among the other names that will be a part of this group and will join the project are IKEA, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric and Signify (ex-Philips Lighting). As you can see, these are basically all the major names in the smart home world, and they’re all on board with the idea.
The project will give us two things. To manufacturers, it’s going to simplify development, quite a bit. To consumers, it’s going to increase compatibility and take out the guesswork of whether or not two devices will work with each other or not.
An interesting aspect of the entire project is that both the development and implementation are expected to go with an open-source approach, which will enable market-tested manufacturers to implement their technologies pretty easily. This will make the entire development quite a bit faster.
Now, this was announced back in December of 2019, so there is a pretty big chance that we still have quite a bit of time before we see the result. However, years ago we had absolutely no compatibility. Today, we have good compatibility that could use some improvement. In a couple of years, we’ll be making the most of it and devices will be able to communicate with each other rather easily. It’s obvious we’re moving towards a unified smart home ecosystem, and we’ll be reaping the benefits of this project before we know it.