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ZigBee doesn’t require high power consumption and makes it easy for devices to go in and out of a low-power sleep mode, so a ZigBee device should be able to run for years on an AA alkaline battery, Heile says.

That may not be an issue for appliances, such as lights, which are plugged into the power grid. But for battery-powered devices, such as remote controls and smoke detectors, power consumption is a key consideration, says Heile. This is a primary reason why existing wireless standards, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, aren’t appropriate for home automation.

ZigBee’s success, however, is far from assured. Because the specification is just one year old, there are very few ZigBee devices currently available to consumers. One exception is a home entertainment and control system from Control4. Heile also points to a test network of 2,000 ZigBee nodes created by South Korea’s SK Telecom, which is investigating the possibility of including ZigBee radios in its cell phones.

Meanwhile, several competing home automation standards are also on the market or under development. A leading contender is Zensys’ proprietary Z-Wave standard, which has been out for several years. Z-Wave is a low-cost, somewhat less capable alternative to ZigBee – but more than 75 compatible products are already available for purchase, which may give Z-Wave a leg up.

Smarthome’s Insteon offers many of the same advantages as ZigBee, say analysts, but – also like ZigBee – it’s unproven in the market. Finally, there are communications systems that transmit information over home powerlines, such as X10. So far, these devices have very limited capabilities, although they have the advantage of tapping into a pre-existing infrastructure.

“We don’t expect ZigBee to have a major impact in this space for at least the next two to three years,” says George West, a senior analyst at West Technology Research Solutions LLC, in Mountain View, CA. That’s primarily because ZigBee devices cost more than alternatives like Z-Wave, and the standard is more complex than most home automation products currently require, says West. For this reason, ZigBee may ultimately be better suited for automation in commercial and industrial environments, such as hospitals, office buildings, and factory floors.

A few years from now, however, the story may be very different. Strategy Analytics predicts that the market for wireless mesh networking chips, including ZigBee, as well as Z-Wave and other proprietary solutions, will reach tens of millions of units annually by 2008.

On the other hand, the hurdles are not trivial: the market is relatively new, there are several competing standards, and there is no pressing consumer demand for home automation. “This stuff feels poised for takeoff – but three years from now, it may still feel poised for takeoff,” says Saffo.

One thing is clear: As more and more consumer products gain sensing capabilities and start interacting with the world around them, the value of networking them will grow. And ZigBee could be the way.

Dylan Tweney is a writer and editor in San Mateo, California.

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