ZigBee Wireless Networking for Embedded Systems May Overtake Ethernet

10/7/2004 - It's taken 30 years for Ethernet to reach the volume shipments we see today, but the new ZigBee standard for wireless networking of embedded systems has the potential to overtake it within a year, according to Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet. Speaking at the ZigBee Design Conference organised by Cambridge Consultants and Ember Corporation, Metcalfe noted that just 2% of the annual eight billion embedded microprocessor shipments a year are currently networked.

Such rapid growth is not achieved without interruptions, but the parallels and lessons of Ethernet, are all there for today's developers to see and exploit. In particular, the distributed nature and openness of Ethernet helped it triumph over many competitive technologies. Vendors who initially used Ethernet to improve their own product performance and costs found that the ability to interoperate with other vendors' equipment opened up much larger markets. The same kind of model will be true of the open ZigBee standard, thinks Metcalfe, but - potentially - on a much shorter timescale.

If a number of obstacles including the ability to buy a complete ZigBee radio, microcontroller and networking software on a single chip are quickly overcome (the technology is already being targeted by Ember with design assistance from Cambridge Consultants) the incredible shipment quantities projected by analysts are achievable, Metcalfe believes. He added that the attractiveness of ZigBee is such that that the growth figures could even be larger, as the value of a networked processor is so high that it will attract many product companies that currently do not use microprocessors at all.

He concluded with some thoughts on particular design challenges facing the networked embedded system developer, including the concept of a directional transmission capability that will simplify the user interface for the highly connected world. And, a warning that too much information from embedded devices - the tag on your dog's collar that tells you while you're driving to work that he's strayed outside his permitted range, for example - could be the equivalent of today's internet spam.

Bob Metcalfe is a partner with the venture capital firm Polaris Ventures, one of Ember's financial backers. He has just been appointed chairman of Ember following its recent $25m funding round.

Earlier this year, Ember purchased a portfolio of wireless integrated circuit technology that Cambridge Consultants had been developing for the ZigBee market, and hired the development team. Cambridge Consultants is also providing ongoing design support to Ember, and has just become the first European application software development partner to the corporation - allowing it to produce application-specific implementations of its chips.

ZigBee Alliance - ZigBee: Wireless Control That Simply Works. The ZigBee Alliance is an association of companies working together to enable reliable, cost-effective, low-power, wirelessly networked, monitoring and control products based on an open global standard. The ZigBee Alliance is a rapidly growing, non-profit industry consortium of leading semiconductor manufacturers, technology providers, OEMs, and end-users worldwide. Membership is open to all. Additional information can be found at www.zigbee.org.

Cambridge Consultants is one of the world's leading product design and development companies. It has a long track record in wireless applications, and works at all levels of the technology from developing ICs and silicon IP for low-power embedded radio, through the design of mainstream wireless devices such as mobile phone handsets, to high-end professional radio applications. Its portfolio embraces standards such as GSM, DECT, Bluetooth and ultra-wide band (UWB), as well as industry-specific protocols such as air traffic control, and its work has previously led to the spin-out of successful wireless-oriented companies. In addition to wireless expertise, Cambridge Consultants has a library of digital silicon IP including processor and DSP cores optimized for low power applications, and a library of analogue IP that has been proven on major silicon foundry processes around the world. These elements provide further essential ingredients for the single-chip wireless solution, as control is typically required in addition to a radio. Cambridge Consultants' royalty-free RISC processor core, XAP2, is integrated into the market-leading Bluetooth chip for example, and has been the heart of tens of millions of ICs delivered by other clients. www.cambridgeconsultants.com.

Ember Corporation removes the barriers to embedded networking. Ember's self-organizing, self-healing, wireless mesh technology is uncompromisingly robust, easy to use, and flexible. The EmberNet(tm) networking platform gives forward-thinking companies the means to create products that do more by communicating better. Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Ember Corporation is focused on enhancing sensing and control products through wireless connectivity. More information is available at www.ember.com.

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