IoT Design Considerations: Cost

Connecting products to the Internet of Things (IoT) is essential to manufacturers looking to stay competitive within their industry. Adding IoT capabilities allows the manufacturer to stay connected with their customer, while discovering new product uses and applications that open them up to new revenue streams. However, these added benefits come with a cost. Connected devices come with a higher manufacturing overhead, but may also be sold with a bigger price tag.

Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections can be added to products for less than $10 in bill of materials costs. Other technologies, such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth, can be added for a lower price, but may require a separate bridge to connect to the Internet and access Cloud services.

To download the complete Internet of Things Design Considerations White Paper, click here.

Internet of Things Standards Wars

There are a wide variety of communication standards today. It’s a mess. Anyone looking to create an Internet of Things-enabled device has a lot of decisions to make and one of the largest ones is how they are going to communicate.

So the questions here are…

  1. Can the many wireless technologies available today really live in harmony as we are all looking to move the IoT market forward and achieve things like the smart home?
  2. Is the differentiation in wireless communication protocols holding us back from mass adoption of the Internet of Things?
  3. Should we all standardize on one wireless communication technology? Can we? Is it even possible?

I’m going to cover the four main wireless communication technologies specifically used in the smart home and in general, across the IoT industry right now. Those four technologies are ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

ZigBee – What’s the BUZZ all about?

ZigBee’s physical range is about 10 to 20 meters and is widely known for its mesh capabilities. It’s small and is pretty low power. ZigBee is controlled primarily by the ZigBee Alliance.

Advantages:

  • Low-powered in advanced sleep capabilities
  • Due to the channel it operates on (900 megahertz), it has high penetration abilities to go through walls
  • ZigBee’s chips are manufactured by multiple Silicon Valley power venders which allows for more competition and lower prices
  • Self-healing network because of its mesh architecture
  • Allows for a large number of nodes

Disadvantages

  • Low data rates of only about 250 kilobits per second
  • Some interoperability issues where a ZigBee device from one manufacturer may or may not work with one from another manufacturer
  • A gateway is required for internet access which requires extra hardware
  • Licensing involved where you have to be a ZigBee Alliance member or take extra steps to be approved by the Alliance
  •  Larger antennae requirements which makes for larger products

Z-Wave – The WAVE of the future?

Z-Wave’s physical range is around 300 meters and like ZigBee, it is also a mesh network. It, however, only has a limit of 232 nodes.

Advantages:

  • Low-power
  • Single signal penetration
  • Self-healing mesh network
  • Very simple protocol that is easy to understand and design
  • In the 900 megahertz spectrum with ZigBee so it’s not as crowded as some other channels

Disadvantages:

  • Only one Silicon manufacturer who controls the market of Z-Wave chips
  • You must go through Z-Wave for licensing
  • A gateway to access the internet is required
  • Discovery and pairing extras are required
  • Only 232 nodes which seems like a lot right now but as we continue to add more IoT devices, people may find that that limit is too few

Bluetooth – Not JUST for wireless headsets anymore

Here I am specifically looking at Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also branded as “Bluetooth Smart.” BLE typically has a range of about 10 meters and the speed is around 1 megabit per second.

Advantages:

  • High install base which creates easy connectivity with mobile devices
  • Working on adding more meshing capabilities in version 4.1
  • Relatively simple connection and pairing process
  • Low power requirements

Disadvantages:

  • Bluetooth 4.0 requires much newer hardware and is not as backwards compatible
  • Operates in the busy 2.4 gigahertz spectrum

Wi-Fi – We’re trying to solve 99 problems but a switch ain’t one

WiFi

Wi-Fi is the most common of their protocols used for wireless communication. It’s something you likely have in your home and office.

Advantages:

  • Largest install base of any wireless communication and most people are familiar with it because of that
  • High data rates which are dependent on which version of Wi-Fi you use
  • Simple connection process

Disadvantages:

  • Wi-Fi is known as a very power-heavy protocol
  • Cost of components
  • Operates in the busy 2.4 gigahertz spectrum which is only going to get busier with more IoT devices

While making ConnectSense wireless sensors and outputs, we looked at the market and available technologies and decided that we wanted something that was very accessible to the wider market especially because we wanted to reach consumers. In the end, we chose to work with Wi-Fi. We started by looking at the weaknesses of Wi-Fi and worked on ways that we could get past those problem areas, specifically around the high power requirements.

How we overcame this challenge was by intelligently sleeping and waking the wireless when using battery power. So by using the secondary processor in low-power mode, we can operate on batteries for a very long time and only wake that radio on event or using a heartbeat. This allows us to have a lot more flexibility and counter some of those weaknesses that are typically seen with Wi-Fi.

In summary, none of these technologies are perfect. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses and applications where they will shine. The technology and wireless communication needs to get out of the way of the use case and be as seamless as possible to the end consumer. Whichever technology can do this best will ultimately win out. The conversation to standardize and work together has just started. It must be continued to ensure the success and wider market adoption of IoT.

Apple HomeKit and IoT Standards

Last Monday, Apple announced a new feature called HomeKit that is coming in iOS 8. This feature will make the smart home smarter by allowing users to control the smart devices around their house such as lights, door locks and security cameras all through their iPhone or iPad.  It’s a good start for a standard with some cool capabilities for allowing devices to talk in the home.

Common standards for devices in the home is one of the key pieces to moving the Internet of Things (IoT) industry forward, and up until this point, it has been largely missing. Currently, one-off integrations being made for individual smart devices are proving to be expensive and time consuming. Having a common language that each device can use to talk over the network is definitely something to help move IoT manufacturers and their smart objects into the future.

How HomeKit Works

At the center of HomeKit is a common database that all HomeKit compatible devices will talk to.  This central database allows different apps to control and manage all of the smart devices in your home.   When a user first starts working with HomeKit, they will define their home (or multiple homes, if they are so lucky).  Within the home, you then define all the different rooms.  Those rooms can then be grouped into zones, such as “upstairs” or “downstairs.”  Different smart devices are assigned to a particular room in your house and contain different actions that you can take using these devices.  These services can also be grouped by common devices allowing for actions like, “Turn off all the lights.”  These actions can be controlled manually or triggered at certain days or times.  Commands and control of devices, actions, and action sets can all be manipulated by a user via voice control with Siri. All in all, this will provide a common experience for all HomeKit compatible devices and allow all our connected devices to start talking to one another.

Security & Privacy

Security and privacy are among the largest concerns of all individuals as they look to add intelligent devices into their homes.  This was central to the design of HomeKit and something that Apple took very seriously.  To create a secure ecosystem, Apple has implemented end-to-end encryption in HomeKit between all iOS devices and the smart accessories they will control.  This ensures privacy for users and that their smart devices cannot be misused.  In addition, they went further in protecting users’ privacy and security by ensuring that the HomeKit APIs can only be accessed by apps in the foreground on iOS.  This means that devices will only be accessed when users have Home Automation apps open and are aware of the possibility of those devices being controlled.

Less value in Hubs & Gateways?

With Apple’s HomeKit being a network protocol, it favors anything that is a “smart object.” A smart object is any IP enabled device that can talk on the network. A hub that serves as an access point to devices may begin to provide less value to IoT in the future. Right now, hubs and gateways are still needed to talk with non-IP enabled protocols like ZigBee and Z-Wave.   While HomeKit provides support for these types of devices, they will likely become a commodity or a kit item for products, like they are today with Philips Hue (customers get a ZigBee gateway with a starter pack).  Companies whose core product was a hub or gateway are going to need to bring more value than just connecting desperate products, as HomeKit will now do this task. 

A Smarter Home

I am personally excited, both as a manufacturer of connected devices and as an early adopter of many of these types devices in my own home.  With HomeKit, Apple has given a shot in the arm to the home automation and IoT industries, helping move the both industries forward.  We are currently looking into everything involved in HomeKit and integrating it into our current and future ConnectSense products.  It will certainly be exciting to see what developers and device manufacturers do with these new capabilities.  One thing is for sure though, our homes are going to get a lot smarter and more exciting with many types of new experiences on the horizon.