Smart homes: can Z-Wave take on the giants?


When Amazon, Google, Apple, and Zigbee announced their new collaboration on a common smart home standard, one major player was left out: Z-Wave, a system specialising in low-power smart devices such as lightbulbs and locks.


The speculation goes that Z-Wave was left out because of long-standing criticisms that its system isn’t truly an open standard. So the day after the announcement, Silicon Labs, the company behind Z-Wave, struck back with an announcement of its own. It’s opening up a part of its standard that will theoretically turn it into a fully-open rival for this new four-headed monster.


Until now, Silicon Labs has created all the chips for Z-Wave radios itself, meaning there’s no price competition, and if Z-Wave ever came to dominate the market, Silicon Labs would be raking in the cash. Now, Silicon Labs is allowing other companies to make Z-Wave radios, and eventually aims to make Z-Wave into a totally open standard.


It will even spin out the Z-Wave Alliance – a standards body focused on certifying the compatibility of devices – into a totally independent organisation, no longer part of Silicon Labs, in the coming months.


This means Silicon Labs will go from having the monopoly on Z-Wave to being just one of many companies trying to make money from it. Given it spent $240 million buying the Z-Wave business only a couple of years ago, this seems like an eccentric decision to say the least, but there’s method in it.


Silicon Labs’ main line of work is making radios for smart devices of all kinds, including devices from competing companies like Amazon. With this successful business, it’s likely to survive competition on the Z-Wave front just fine – and opening up the system could also drive up sales of Z-Wave. Some security providers are reluctant to buy Z-Wave at present because they don’t want to buy anything that can’t be sourced from multiple vendors. If Z-Wave sales go up, demand for radios will go up too, and Silicon Labs will be best placed to provide them.


However, there’s another layer to this whole thing. While the Apple/Google/Amazon/Zigbee collaboration – known as Connected Home over IP – isn’t developing a radio communications standard that would compete directly with Z-Wave, it is aiming to enable all smart home devices to connect with one another, primarily over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi at first. If that takes off, Z-Wave could get squeezed out… but Silicon Labs will still be involved.


That’s because, while Z-Wave is not involved in the collaboration, Silicon Labs is – it’s a board member of Zigbee. In other words, Silicon Labs has just cleverly placed itself so that whatever happens, it’s going to be selling plenty of radios.

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