Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The unbearable standardization of lighting. (Or, how to confuse consumers in one easy step.)

From B to Z, wireless standards can be so confusing you see.

"The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from." That's a great quote from computer scientist Andrew Tanenbaum.

Like sausages and laws, you should never watch standards being made. It can be a messy process. And very competitive. There's the pure technical work. And then there's the lobbying. And the backroom deals. And the temporary alliances. There are the IPR battles and legal battles. And then there's the time required for the market to settle things.

I've been looking at the market for smart bulbs lately. The day will come when even our light bulbs are part of our personal connected networks. A bit Rube Goldberg-esque perhaps. A solution looking for a bigger problem to solve, but cool stuff nonetheless. There really are lots of cool use cases with connected, colored lighting.

But one thing that's confusing me is all the air interface standards being used in these bulbs. And I follow standards pretty closely. Could you imagine how the average consumer will feel? Interoperability? That's for the other vendor to worry about.

So, connected bulbs are hitting the market now. And lots more will during 2014. Let's see what technologies vendors are using to make the wireless connections into the home network: some use ZigBee and and some use Z-Wave. Some are planning on (low power) WiFi and one uses Bluetooth. There's something called 6LowPAN (IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks) and then, of course, there are several proprietary interfaces.

As we enter the age of the smart home and the internet of things, this is no small matter. Either things will work smoothly together, or they won't. For now it's looking like ZigBee with its many specific use-case specific protocols is looking like it might pull ahead. Set-top box vendors together with their cable operator partners are looking at ZigBee for cable boxes and remote controls. And at least two handset vendors might soon include ZigBee directly in their smartphones. And the most popular smart bulb and the most popular connected thermostat use ZigBee. But now I read that most new PAN implementations will be using Z-Wave. And some love IETF's 6LowPAN. Of course Bluetooth and WiFi have their installed user-base advantages. And I could list more here.

So, which PAN spec do you like best? Pick and choose. You just can't lose.

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