Recently the Z-Wave Alliance got in touch with Automated Home and offered us some one on one time with their Chairman, Mark Walters. We chatted about the next generation of Z-Wave, other wireless technologies and the chances of an overriding standard for the smart home.
Later he moved to work for Z-Wave inventors, Zensys who were subsequently bought by Sigma Designs in 2008. His role is now Z-Wave Alliance Chairman, responsible for heading up the group of around 250 companies that make up the industry body.
Z-Wave Plus – The Next Generation
Every Z-Wave device is powered from a chip made by Sigma Designs. This “self source” model has led some to question the competitiveness of the system but Mark points out they still have to compete directly with other technologies in their sector. In addition a second supplier, Mitsumi, now makes the chips under license, although they mainly serve the Asian market.
Keen to point out that interoperability is one of Z-Wave’s biggest strengths, especially when compared to ZigBee, Mark explained the protocol stack is fixed, it cannot be changed by group members. While there have been 8 or 9 protocol releases going back to 2002, all new versions have always been backwards compatible.
The previous generations of Z-Wave chips had only 32kB of memory, meaning manufacturers often had to choose which features to include in their modules and which to leave out. The new 500 SoC brings advanced features and a number of significant improvements.
For starters the onboard memory has been quadrupled to 128kB allowing manufactures to include the complete Z-Wave feature set in their latest designs. Indeed they must include them all to be Z-Wave Plus certified. The 500 series features a 3 channel radio with improved range and the chip as a whole is 40% more power efficient that its predecessor.
Smart home security issues have been mounting in the news of late and the 500 has upgraded security features including hardware support for AES-128 encryption, replacing the software only support of previous generations.
Mark confirmed the first new Z-Wave Plus product has just passed certification. He expects to see around 30 ‘Plus’ products available by the end of quarter 2 this year and predicted that in just 18 months time 85% of products on sale will be Z-Wave Plus. For the end user this means…
- Greater Minimum RF Range requirements for all products
- Better defined expected behavior for more consistent user experience
- Better defined technical capabilities enabling more reliable and easier to set up networks
- Backwards compatibility with previous generations of z-wave products is maintained
By the Numbers
Next we asked for some insight into what was leading the adoption of the technology around the world.
Residential security systems are the biggest driver in America. 2013 saw 6 million homes in the USA installing or upgrading their security system to a Z-Wave panel with the top selling products being Z-Wave door locks.
The driving force is convenience and ‘what can I do with my smartphone’. It’s becoming a status symbol.
Numbers are hard to come by in the fragmented European market but Mark gave us a ball park figure of half a million Z-Wave devices sold in Europe last year. All this means that Z-Wave sales have more than doubled for each of the past three years. Impressive.
The Wireless Future
There are challenges ahead for Z-Wave, not least the threat from other wireless technologies on the horizon, Bluetooth LE, 6LowPAN and in particular 802.11ah Wi-Fi. It also operates on a sub-1GHz frequency so shares the advantageous signal propagation characteristics of Z-Wave and will no-doubt be built into our home routers over time. Mark is sceptical though and doesn’t see it as an impending threat and believes if it ever catches up to Z-Wave it will take a long time.
The spec won’t even be finalised until the end of 2015. And it has taken us 10 years to build our ecosystem to it’s current success.
He added that he’d be surprised if 802.11ah was able to deliver on everything that’s been promised so far whilst maintaining a battery life comparable to Z-Wave.
So how about the chances of a home automation standard for information interchange emerging in the industry. His answer was forthright…
Its all a mess right now, but a standard is not going to appear.
Despite our optimism about the Allseen Alliance, Mark simply does not see commercial companies being able to put their own interests far enough aside to make it a reality.
Z-Wave Means Interoperability
From a pragmatic point of view, Z-Wave certainly does appear to be gaining in popularity. Just have a look around at the selection of Z-Wave modules available in the off the shelf home automation market compared to ZigBee for example and you’ll see what we mean.
A clear strategy on interoperability has been key to that success and with the launch of Z-Wave Plus, that backwards compatibility has been retained whilst introducing an upgraded feature set that takes Z-Wave into the next generation.