Zigbee’s future is debated

Bob Metcalfe’s at it again. Mr. Ethernet, now a venture capitalist, technologist and pundit, is making wild predictions and this time it’s ZigBee, the 2.4GHz wireless standard — IEEE 802.15.4 — aimed primarily at monitoring and control rather than data transfer.

At NetEvents in Barcelona last week, the man who invented Ethernet in 1973 said that there are about eight billion microprocessors shipped every year, in everything from our cars to washing machines to industrial processes. “ZigBee will network these”, he stated.

And that would make ZigBee one of the most ubiquitous technologies on the planet. Except, as has often been the case with Mr. Metcalfe’s visions, others take the complete opposite view and claim that ZigBee is all but dead in the water.

The way it will work is that a five-year battery life and cost of US$5 per chip will ensure ubiquity. For example, there is talk, said Metcalfe, of putting ZigBee in mobile phones, which will allow them to act as control devices, enabling applications such as home automation and security. Metcalfe, we should point out, is a partner in ZigBee developer Ember Corp.

ZigBee is predicted to grow, averred Metcalfe, from 500,000 chips shipped this year to five to 50 million next year. “This is the really low end of the Internet. There will be a ton of data coming to and from those probes. Middleware is yet to come — it’s a big opportunity”, said Metcalfe. He reckoned that ZigBee’s attractiveness means that growth could be even larger because the value of a networked processor is so high that it will attract companies that currently do not use microprocessors at all.

He envisaged applications such as lighting control, where every switch and lightbulb would contain a tiny, very cheap radio. This would allow wiring to be abolished so that switches can do their job without relying on cabling. However the barriers, said, Metcalfe, include “an endless series of little UI problems. How do you get consumers to program a ZigBee controller to operate nine lightbulbs?”

ZigBee is doomed

However, others say ZigBee’s future is anything but rosy. A few days ago, West Technology Research Solutions LLC (WTRS) was fairly bullish about its view that low-power wireless technology ZigBee is in danger of succumbing to the fragmentation so far avoided by standards-based specs such as Wi-Fi and WiMax. Death by a thousand cuts, it warned.

Oh no it’s not

Others however are more sanguine. Refuting the fragmentation claim, ABI Research said that “the final ZigBee standard has not yet been completely drafted, and until it is, no products can claim to be ZigBee-compliant. That has not stopped some vendors from seeking a first foothold in the market with products based on an estimate of what the standard will finally look like.”

In ABI’s report, ZigBee and 802.15.4 Wireless Network Markets, analyst Chris Lopez said, “While a few companies have produced rather inferior solutions that are entirely proprietary, most of the companies offering ‘pre-standard’ products are themselves members of the ZigBee Alliance that is creating the standard. They know what’s going to be in it because they’re involved in writing it, and they are sticking very closely to what they know will be the protocol’s final shape.”

Bob Healy, president of the ZigBee Alliance, recently addressed the issue in an email to members, in which he cautioned them to describe their current products as “ZigBee-ready”, rather than “ZigBee-compliant”. Lopez believes there is no chance that a buyer of one of today’s “ZigBee-ready” products will be left out in the cold once the standard is ratified.

Finally, Lopez says, smart money — most conspicuously Paul Allen’s multi-million dollar investment in Ember — is heading towards the ZigBee market. That, he says, is a vote of confidence in support of ABI Research’s own conclusions.

Metcalfe’s predictions

Back to Metcalfe, on his predilection for prediction he agrees that he’s been wrong — and right. Here are some of his comments at NetEvents:

“Had I been cool on the upside, there would be no Cisco (Systems Inc.). We had routers (at 3Com Corp.) first”.

“Cisco has the right culture of customer focus. It is not internally directed. That bodes well for the perpetuation of its monopoly.”

“In the 1990s, I predicted Microsoft (Corp.) is going down the tubes. Maybe it’s just a very long tube.”

And if you go back further, there are plenty of other prognostications:

The Internet

Most famously, he predicted in a December 1995 column that the Internet would collapse in 1996 or he would eat his words. When it didn’t, he kept his promise by blending a copy of the offending column with water and eating the subsequent gruel.


In 1997 in an InfoWorld interview, he said: “I’m very pessimistic [about wireless]. The main problem is we all desperately want everything to be wireless. We want it so bad that we’re willing to believe anything anyone tells us about wireless….And while the people who are peddling wireless technology are sincere in their efforts, they’re exaggerating its effectiveness.”

In the same interview, we got an early version of his current thinking on wireless which, contrary to Marconi’s bid to lengthen its reach, extrapolates today’s cellular technologies. “The simple fact is that wireless uses one copy of the ether. There’s only one copy of it, and they all have to use it, and eventually they’ll run out. Whereas each optical fibre is its own copy of the ether; when you run another one, you have a whole new spectrum. You can duplicate the ether. Now wireless people by cellularizing are hoping to reuse the ether, and there’s promise in this.”


On his predictions, right or wrong: “My job is to provide food for thought, and food tastes better when it’s spiced. And so I spice it up to make it interesting to people and provocative, and to stimulate discussion, and I get it.”


Finally, Metcalfe on Linux vs Windows. “Why do I think Linux won’t kill Windows? Two reasons. The Open Source Movement’s ideology is utopian balderdash. And Linux is 30-year-old technology. The Open Source Movement reminds me of communism. Richard Stallman’s Marx rants about the evils of the profit motive and multinational corporations. Linus Torvalds’ Lenin laughs about world domination. OK, communism is too harsh on Linux. Lenin too harsh on Torvalds.”

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