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ZigBee: THE standard for smart home applications?

12 4 min
Woman using a Smart Energy Controller Source: iStock/Thomas_EyeDesign

The Smart Home, a long standing promise for over 30 years, is becoming a reality today. ZigBee has developed as the wireless communication technology of choice. Actually, ZigBee is the low-power wireless technology that complements WiFi technology to make our homes smarter, safer, more comfortable and energy efficient. Let me elaborate, why we at GreenPeak Technologies are convinced that ZigBee will be a crucial element of smart homes.

But before we start: What is this much talked about Smart Home, which tech-evangelists have been promising for many, many years? It is the automated home with devices that talk to each other and that can be controlled from a home dashboard or with a smart phone over the internet. But until recently, the Smart Home always stayed upscale market or was the playground for a few hobbyists and early innovators.

The potential for mass market home automation has been recognized for a long time, and finally today we are witnessing the beginning of that new era with many large operators, service providers and utilities launching Smart Home applications. These can be managed via set-top box or gateway via the web, allowing subscribers to convert their households into state-of-the-art machines that can be monitored and controlled  from anywhere in the world via smart phones, tablets or mobile devices.

The Smart Home is not built overnight

My experience shows, that a Smart Home will not be built overnight, but it will arrive in phases. Operators are starting to offer Smart Home applications as additional service to their current offering of TV, phone services, internet and entertainment; their customers can chose from applications that are tailored to their specific needs. A single home owner has different requirements to make his home smarter than elderly people or a family with children. These applications can check and control “things at home” such as temperature control (changing the setting of the thermostat), security (making sure that doors are locked), alarm systems (sensors and cameras) or energy management (e.g. lighting controls) and health and status monitoring of elderly people. To have all these different applications interoperable, they all need to be able to communicate with each other.

living rool smartphone app explaining zigbee Source: Greenpeak
Smart Homes have finally become a reality and are founded on a symbiosis of applications allowing home owners to monitor and control applications for improved energy efficiency, access control, security, home monitoring and home care.

Why do we need industry standards?

Think of our own home: many of our home electronic devices, sensors and appliances exist on isolated islands, disconnected from the internet and unable to see or talk to each other. This has been a major obstacle for Smart Home adoption. The first requirements for Smart Home applications is to make them wireless (ease of installation) and maintenance-free (no battery replacement).

The wireless residential applications prosper best within the context of open communication standards, and offer OEMs the freedom to purchase from a large pool of suppliers and, most importantly, allow devices from different vendors to interoperate, which is paramount in the market success of integrated Smart Home applications and will increase customer adoption when consumers can buy devices from different brands.

The interoperability offered by ZigBee allows for all Smart Home applications to operate under the same open ZigBee communication standard. The different sensor applications and the devices they control are integrated and link their intelligence to create what I like to call the “Really Smart Home” which now no longer needs human intervention. This Really Smart Home integrates all applications and the intelligence behind it in one application layer, where the same motion sensor used in the security system to trigger an alarm, is also integrated in the light control and HVAC system that switches off the lights and the heating when nobody is in a room.

ZigBee or WiFi?

For the home environment, the immediate question is: Which networking will be best used in the home? One may think that WiFi and ZigBee are competing with each other. The reality, however, is that both technologies have their own place.

WiFi (based on IEEE 802.11) has been developed with a focus on a high speed data rate (100 Mb/s and beyond) to optimize the distribution of content through the home: from browsing the internet to downloading movies. WiFi connected devices are typically connected to the mains power and energy consumption has only been a secondary criterion.

ZigBee (based on IEEE 802.15.4) is complementary to WiFi: developed for sense and control networks, where battery life was the primary development factor; therefore the battery life of ZigBee devices can easily be measured in multiple years, or even exceeds the life time of the device it is used in. This is all in contrast to the battery life of even “energy efficient” WiFi implementations, usually expressed in weeks or months.

With its comparable indoor range ZigBee is the low-power version of WiFi and for me it is the clear technology of choice for Smart Home applications.

From the Smart Home to the Internet of Things

I consider ZigBee as the crucial enabler for the development of the Internet of Things. Most of the end-nodes on the internet today are people using PCs, laptops and smart phones. However this is rapidly changing as many more devices in the home are getting connected to the internet, building the Smart Home, and starting to shift the balance away from people towards connected things. These devices (“sentrollers”) are usually sensors, controllers, actuators or combinations. For instance: a thermostat senses the temperature, essentially “sentrols” it, via its communication with a higher layer control system that is also connected with other systems, knowing the time of day, the outside temperature, etc. The Smart Home will accelerate the use of sentrollers beyond the home as well: in building automation, for the smart grid, and from there in logistical, industrial and agricultural applications.

Just like WiFi was a real milestone in starting the use of internet at home, ZigBee will be the trigger point for the Internet of Things, starting at home as well and enabling the next wave in the ongoing technology revolution.

More information on smart home and standards

Standards: smart home using OSGi.

The future of OSGi in the Internet of Things.

Here to stay: the smart home needs standards.


  • 1. April 2014 at 10:07

    Dear Evan,
    Please send me your email address for personal follow-up.
    Thank you!

  • 28. March 2014 at 6:58

    I am a guy from China mainland, you can call me Evan, i am very interested in “Smart Home”, i would like to do some things about smart home. either trade business or manufacture , i well agree with Zigbee’s smart home idea, that’s why i send this e-mail.
    i know Zigbee has a department in HK , but i don’t know if you open your businesses in China mainland , my thinking is i can help Zigbee to dig China mainland market , i have both factory manufacture & sales experience in China Shenzhen Foxconn , i think i can control something very well ,waiting for your reply , thank you ,

  • 10. January 2014 at 11:21

    It has been the would like of each home owner to save lots of home energy and to chop on electricity prices. Electricity is one in all the foremost basic utility wants reception that men cannot live while not. you’ll see these days variety of technologies in terms of gadgets and appliances nonetheless while not electricity, you can not appreciate their functions.

  • 12. August 2013 at 9:49

    We have built our range of products including apps, gateways, dimmers, switches, smart power outlets, shade and blind controllers etc. around ZigBee for the reasons you have mentioned above. Juha, if you need hardware then feel free to contact us (
    Arasch Honarbacht (

  • 25. July 2013 at 8:38

    Yeah as mentioned a home can get wide scope of installations from high end lighting control and automation systems to basic alarm and CCTV installations. Smart phones and tablets or even the computers can use as the controllers through Internet for it.

  • 16. July 2013 at 17:21

    . This chip also offers various operating modes suitable for ultra-low power applications. TI’s CC2530 2.4-GHz RF SoC is suitable for broad range of applications including ZigBee PRO networks, ZigBee RF4CE remote controls (using RemoTI stack), smart energy, home and building automation, audio-visual consumer electronics, wireless medical, and environmental monitoring.

  • 9. July 2013 at 0:24

    This is all nice theory, but the heterogeneous reality shows that there isn’t THE one protocol that will rule the Smart Home in the end. Be it ZigBee, Z-Wave, EnOcean, Insteon, digitalSTROM, KNX or whatever: All have their pros and cons and their right to exist. What this boils down to is that it is necessary to be able to integrate such different systems into one Smart Home solution.
    Regarding Interlectual Property, ZigBee isn’t that much better than the rest – it is also not possibly to implement Open Source libraries without having to join the ZigBee Alliance. Imho only a protocol that is completely open and royalty free can make a real difference in the market.

    Kai Kreuzer (

  • 2. July 2013 at 13:20

    Echoing some of the earlier comments but here goes:

    Completely agree on the point that standards are desperately needed and Zigbee seems to be more serious about this than some other WSN alternatives. Kudos for that. There’s some room for more transparency too, mostly noting the examples set by IETF and IEEE on defining what mostly exists and operates on IP stack today.

    Example here is 6lowpan over 802.15.4 — Zigbee’s own smart energy profile seems to hint towards this direction. Speaking from a developer’s point of view, my preference will be on anything IP based purely because of the hurdle of having to learn yet another new technology/protocol/API. Leveraging existing knowledge is a winner. Acquiring new knowledge is tough and slow.

    And while wireless sensor meshes are great, an IP based backbone for throughput and bridging will not likely be sitting very far from it. So close focus to solutions that bridge to an IP network in a standardized way should be a high priority. Zigbee’s gateway spec and/or 6lowpan plans should be very much in the focus right now.

    Lastly, it makes it difficult to be a Zigbee advocate when it is so difficult to find any Zigbee-based hardware. The alliance is favorited by large industrial players — given their desire to avoid single vendor lock-in — but needs more push from SMB to get products on the shelves. The industrial players are sitting on their hands waiting for “volume” which is not going to happen if no one is willing to take a risk and make the push. While the technical challenges may be one part of the delay in Zigbee adoption, lack of products to buy surely is another.

    However, enjoyed your article and thanks for sharing it.

    Juha Lindfors

  • 2. July 2013 at 12:29

    Hallo Rick—Thanks for reacting and your points are well taken.

    The good news is that there is significant momentum in the ZigBee Alliance to address the issues you have raised. ZigBee is covering very large application areas (Home Automation, Building Automation, Smart Grid, Retail Services, etc.); all the application areas have very diverse requirements. In retrospect: probably it would have been wiser for the Alliance to build the standard up by starting in just one application area, get out the immaturities, prove its value first and then migrate from there. Unfortunately, the initial ZigBee enthusiasm did not see any boundaries, and ZigBee went everywhere a little but, but nowhere convincing…

    Today the times are more sobering, and the many companies that are committed to ZigBee have realized what you are also addressing – and they are fixing it in the Alliance. In the first place, all the different ZigBee flavors will most likely fade away (just like all the WiFi flavors have gone). Secondly, the ease of installation in particular has been addressed and is greatly improved. Third: the security is not bad (e.g. compared to for instance EnOcean or ZWave), but the commissioning has been largely simplified.

    Your suggestion, starting again and do it with IP? Also in a way that has happened already, and ZigBee IP is available today (IPv6 based) – it was released earlier this year. Unfortunately: this is running into the problem that IPv6 is not yet well accepted yet in the market plus that it requires very long addressing and minimum packet size, plus extra overhead for every simple end-node – a cost adder without end-user benefit…; so, the jury is out on IP for sensor networks – although ZigBee has incorporated it.

    So, the points that you are addressing are valid indeed and they tell how difficult and stubborn the subject of sense and control networking is. But frankly, starting again would lead to the same issues, so knocking them away systematically is the better approach. Foremost: ZigBee is the only worldwide open standard, all alternatives are essentially single source, proprietary, regional solutions, where ZigBee has many technology vendors (chip, software and tools), who have no choice than to resolve these issues and to make it work.

  • 1. July 2013 at 16:33

    Zigbee was a good idea when originally conceived, but it seems that too many compromises/omissions were made during the standardization phase that have greatly increased the complexity and “geek index” needed in real deployments. Anyone who has tried to implement multiple gateways and to deal with the Zigbee association process will confirm that it’s just a mess. Security and interoperability? Good luck. Something new is needed, which builds on the best aspects of Zigbee (power consumption and meshability), uses an IP-based communications protocol, and is orders of magnitude easier to configure, diagnose, and implement, and deploy in large scale. Zigbee is legacy, and needs to be integrated with (which we do quite often), but it most definitely is NOT the future, or if it is, the growth of the IoT could be greatly impeded…

  • 28. June 2013 at 17:23

    Dori, thanks for your question. Bluetooth/Smart is for peripheral connect, like a heart rate monitor or a watch connecting to the phone, or a keyboard/mouse to the computer.
    Bluetooth/Smart is not a networking technology.
    WiFi is a networking technology, but developed for content sharing/distribution – low power was not a design consideration. ZigBee is low-power WiFi: a networking technology with a very long battery life (>10 years, depending on the chip supplier), and should be used for networking sense and control nodes.

  • 28. June 2013 at 15:01

    Very interesting article, Cees – thank you!

    My company is developing a smartphone-controlled home irrigation system that combines both Bluetooth Smart (i.e. Bluetooth Low Energy) for local control as well as WiFi for remote access and direct connectivity to the Internet.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on Bluetooth Smart and how you see it in the context of the smart home as well as the IoT in general.