When we launched the Best of Sensors Expo awards in 1999, there was no such thing as a wireless sensor networking standard. This year, 50% of the wireless product nominees (and 25% of all Best of Sensors Expo award entrants) boasted ZigBee compatibility. Here's why the ZigBee trend will continue—and how:
The ZigBee Alliance held its second annual ZigBee Developers' Conference in conjunction with Sensors Expo (last year the event sold out and had to turn people away). The 3-day conference attracted 145 OEM attendees and offered 24 lectures, including 8 four-hour courses on various ZigBee platforms--that is, specific combinations of microcontrollers, software, and stacks. In these half-day hands-on sessions, says Tim Gillman, developers' conference chairman (and VP of Sales and Marketing for San Juan Software), OEMs have the opportunity to work with tools, program boards, and "make decisions about which vendors they may want to use based on experience without spending a lot of time or money."
This kind of event is important for adoption, and the Alliance did a fine job with it (as with its quarterly Open House events). While some vendors hold such training sessions for their proprietary offerings, and while those offerings are often excellent, none has the broad-adoption potential of ZigBee; no other wireless standard has such applicability for sensor applications; and to my knowledge no other standard provides this kind of support for sensor-based application. By the way, Gillman plans to offer another U.S.-based devcon next year—and add a European one as well.
Sensors contributing editor Tom Kevan is right to point out that "interest does not necessarily translate into adoption. The elimination of technical and economic barriers does." And here's an indicator to answer that concern: Those in the electronics industry know Atmel as a key player in the microcontroller (MCU) space and can easily appreciate the significance of the fact that the company's new Z-Link ZigBee radio chip integrates with its popular AVR controllers. (And, by the way, Atmel plans to double its presence at Sensors Expo next year.)
Integration of ZigBee chips with microcontrollers is a trend that Ember kicked into high gear last winter when that company announced its partnership with STMicroelectronics (ST), another one of the world's largest semiconductor vendors. At the time, ST said the relationship would "significantly accelerate" its development of ZigBee technology, and allow the company to offer its customers new, interoperable products.
These developments provide integration that will make it easier for OEMs to take advantage of wireless communications—specifically, ZigBee. That eliminates a technical barrier, and along the way will surely mitigate economic barriers, too.
Interestingly, the ZigBee Alliance just last week added ST—along with Huawei Technologies and Schneider Electric—to its board of directors. These are significant OEMs, and their Alliance involvement is an important next step for ZigBee adoption. As for Ember, it is working to partner with other MCU developers.
In his keynote address at Sensors Expo, Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe (who is also Ember's chairman) quoted an IDC study that said next year, annual shipments of embedded microcontrollers will top 10 billion.
"If only more of them were networked," said Metcalfe.
Working On It
It doesn't take much imagination to get to where Metcalfe led his audience with that statement. That's the "how" of the adoption equation. And it's why we devoted our June cover story to new tools available to address the challenges of ZigBee applications. Wireless networking is where so much of the action is in sensor development these days, and ZigBee is the only currently viable standard for making that happen.