Ethernet creator talks up potential of ZigBee

Some analysts fear that wireless standard ZigBee is under threat from vendors rushing out pre-standard products, but Bob Metcalfe is certain that it will play a massive role in IT

Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, predicted last week that the ZigBee wireless standard would be hugely successful -- which makes sense, as his company Polaris Ventures, has a stake in its success.

The supporters of ZigBee, or the IEEE 802.15.4 standard,  claim that it will allow manufacturers to connect billions of electronic devices to the Internet, but concerns have been voiced that the emerging standard is about to fragment.

Speaking at the NetEvents gathering of analysts, press and vendors in Barcelona, Metcalfe said that take-up of ZigBee would be rapid, as the technology shares many of the features that helped to make Ethernet so dominant over the last thirty years.

"As with Ethernet we have a standard, and then a consortium of companies wrapped around it," said Metcalfe. He estimates that around 10billion microprocessors are being shipped annually, giving ZigBee a massive market.

"One of those microprocessors is the one that you walk past and see flashing 12 12 12, because it's not on a network so it can't find the time," Metcalfe added, referring to the LED displays of umpteen million electronic gadgets.

ZigBee is a combination of a defunct wireless standard called HomeRF Lite and the 802.15.4 specification. It operates in the 2.4GHz radio band -- the same band as the 802.11b standard, microwaves and cordless phones -- over 16 channels.

It is capable of connecting 255 devices per network at speeds of up to 250Kbps at a range of up to 30 metres. ZigBee is scheduled to achieve final ratification later this year.

Consultancy firm West Technology Research Solutions claimed earlier this month that vendors who are releasing "pre-standard" products in an attempt to grab market share risk damaging ZigBee.

"Instead of becoming a standard for low data-rate network environments, ZigBee is in danger of evolving into simply one among many proprietary options," warned West Technology Research Solutions.

"The proliferation of proprietary 802.15.4 solutions in advance of the availability of the ZigBee standard has effectively marginalised the overall market opportunity for ZigBee."

But other market watchers dispute that all of these early products are a threat to the evolution  of the ZigBee standard.

"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," said Chris Lopez, analyst at ABI Research, in a statement.

"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."

Metcalfe is a partner at venture capital fund Polaris Ventures, which has invested in a number of ZigBee companies including Ember, which is building ZigBee chips. Metcalfe has just become chairman of Ember.

He acknowledges that there are some problems to overcome. Around 98 percent of micro-processors today are not networked, so a major educational push is needed to explain the benefits of ZigBee to the companies selling these devices.

There is also an absence of middleware for ZigBee.

"It's not entirely clear how enterprises will control ZigBee networks or use the data," Metcalfe warned.

ZigBee will probably first hit the market when a single vendor launches a range of products that only talk to each other -- perhaps a consumer electronics company that wants to get rid of wires.

The market will really blossom when there is interoperability between ZigBee devices made by different vendors.

"That’s when Ethernet took off, when Sun servers could talk to Cisco routers," said Metcalfe.

Metcalfe also took part in a Q&A session on subjects such as network speeds, software radios, Cisco's future, RFID, Web services, and why there should be more engineers on company boards.