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Z-Wave home automation protocol throws the door wide

Three specifications of the Z-Wave home automation protocol are being released to the public domain to help 'democratize the smart home space.' But is it too little too late?

Proprietary protocols can prevent the things of IoT from connecting and communicating to their fullest potential. Sigma Designs Inc. is trying to remedy this with the release of its Z-Wave home automation protocol to the public domain. However, reaction to the news has experts contemplating its effects.

Z-Wave ditches NDAs

Sigma Designs today released its Z-Wave Interoperability Specification to "further the democratization of the smart home space," said Raoul Wijgergangs, vice president of the Z-Wave business unit for Sigma Designs, based in Fremont, Calif. The home automation protocol previously required nondisclosure agreements, and it was only available to Z-Wave Alliance members and Z-Wave development kit holders.

Wijgergangs called Z-Wave the "world's most widely deployed" smart home protocol, with more than 50 million devices deployed -- 20 million in the last year -- in 10 million homes. The ITU G.9959 standard offers mesh networking, ultralow power consumption and high interoperability. It is brand-agnostic and backward-compatible, making it simpler for disparate IoT devices to communicate.

The home automation protocol, which has been in play for more than 10 years, is used in more than 1,500 home devices by more than 175 device manufacturers and service providers, including GE, Honeywell and Schlage.

"All customers utilizing Z-Wave technology make their devices speak the exact same language," Wijgergangs said. "Most other technologies largely let devices network together, but not really understand each other. The advantages you're going to get by making devices understand each other is you can manage them from a single app, no matter if the device is a thermostat or a door lock or a light switch coming from company A, B, C or D via channel 1, 2 or 3."

"It's a step in the right direction," said independent analyst Jessica Groopman. "Opening up Z-Wave to the public domain allows anyone -- that is any developer, whether with an enterprise, startup or individually -- to incorporate it into their product designs. This is critical for building interoperability across domains and ecosystems, but it also strengthens the overall integrity and security of the protocol as it expands."

The future of Z-Wave and home automation protocols

Opening up the standard, Wijgergangs said, will certainly not prevent Z-Wave implementation mistakes. However, it will, he added, help grow the developer community and push Z-Wave beyond home control to other areas of interest within the development community.

The Z-Wave Alliance will continue to maintain a critical role; Wijgergangs said it would be "very instrumental" in the certification and compliance of products carrying the Z-Wave logo.

Cloud communities, IoT gateway manufacturers, middleware manufacturers and IoT initiatives, such as the AllSeen Alliance's AllJoyn framework and the Open Connectivity Foundation, will prosper from the open-sourcing of Z-Wave, Wijgergangs said. Hobbyists and students will also benefit.

Groopman said users could also definitely prosper. "In the long term, it will benefit consumers and end users whose experience is improved when connected products and appliances 'just work,' and they are saved the hassle of manual setup, or having to configure products 'DIY' style," Groopman said. "This is a step toward greater adoption in the smart home, particularly since Z-Wave consumes less power than Wi-Fi."

But, will it spread beyond the smart home? Reactions are mixed.

"This announcement is going to propel Z-Wave into small office and home office spaces, and the commercial enterprise as well," Wijgergangs said. "Will it go much beyond that, into smart government, smart military or smart city? I have my reservations. It will go places, but I don't think it will go widely outside building structures."

Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., is more doubtful. "I'm not clear that this helps Z-Wave beyond the home," Mathias said. "I think Wi-Fi and BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] will dominate in most commercial and industrial applications. It's impossible for any given developer to support every radio out there, so they'll, in general, go where the volume is."

Aapo Markkanen, principal analyst at Machina Research, based in London, said the move was a necessary one, given the competition from Thread, ZigBee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi HaLow and various low-power wireless access technologies.

"Against this backdrop, if you've got a proprietary technology that is light-years away from becoming a de-facto standard, you might as well open it up and cross your fingers," Markkanen said. "Too bad [Sigma Designs] didn't do this earlier."

Mathias said he thinks we'll see more open-sourcing of proprietary IoT protocols in the future.

"I expect that most developer tools and APIs for essentially all of the leading radio technologies will become freely available over the next few years. Such is key to attracting developers -- why keep what developers need a secret?" Mathias said. "And the more applications, the greater the enabling of demand for the underlying technology. Such is, of course, no guarantee of success, again given the very competitive nature of the marketplace."

In addition to the Z-Wave Interoperability Specification, Sigma Designs is also releasing the Z-Wave Security Specification and the Z-Wave over IP Specification, which includes reference implementation Z/IP Gateway and the Z-Ware middleware application.

Next Steps

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