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Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are coming for the smart home

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If you wanted to build a smart home anytime in the last decade, you turned to one of two places: ZigBee or Z-Wave. Both are connectivity standards tailor made for the smart home, each connecting the hundreds of products approved for their systems. You’ve probably never heard of them, but you’ve definitely heard of their new competitors: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. As the niche smart home industry starts to grow, everyone wants a piece of it. And more established standards are coming for them.

"Everything they've been talking about, we've been doing already."

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth both plan to make some big changes over the next year or two that'll allow them to better connect the smart home: Wi-Fi is creating a low-power offering so it can work inside tiny devices, and Bluetooth is adding mesh networking so it can extend throughout a home. If things work out, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth could be the only home connectivity standards we need.

You think that would scare ZigBee and Z-Wave, but neither group claims to be worried. "It doesn't [scare me]," says Mark Walters, ZigBee's VP of strategic development. "Wi-Fi has been talking about low power for forever and a day. They're starting from scratch and are pretty far behind."

"The [low-power Wi-Fi] HaLow announcement is a huge win for us," says Mitchell Klein, Z-Wave's executive director. "Everything they've been talking about, we've been doing already."

Of course, there's a long history of companies doing something first and then being forgotten after another company does it better — just ask BlackBerry how its smartphone business is going. At least publicly, ZigBee and Z-Wave seem dismissive of the possibility that they could similarly be crushed. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are in smartphones around the world — ZigBee and Z-Wave are not — and that's going to make them formidable competitors.

"We're not an island."

But both groups readily acknowledge that they're going to have to work with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as the ecosystems that use them, to succeed in the home. "We're not an island," Klein says of Z-Wave. "We absolutely have to be partnering and working with all of those potential standards. We know that. The good news is: we are."

ZigBee even sees primarily Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-based smart home systems, like Apple's HomeKit, as an opportunity, rather than a threat. "Probably the most popular HomeKit product is Philips Hue," Walters says. And what's actually connecting those lights? "That's ZigBee."

But that's only the story for now. If Wi-Fi and Bluetooth do manage to upgrade for the smart home, then the places that ZigBee and Z-Wave see as safe could start disappearing. Even Walters is willing to admit that ZigBee will likely lose some ground to Bluetooth. "Bluetooth mesh ... demands some respect," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind Bluetooth Smart is gonna get some market, but it's a damn big market."

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will be in the smart home, but to what extent?

Klein at Z-Wave, on the other hand, doesn't see it happening. "We own the security market," he says. "Talk to ADT, Vivid, Alarm.com. We own that stuff. Do you really think that ADT is all the sudden going to change?"

And while Walters thinks ZigBee will take a hit, he by no means thinks it'll go away. "We will be one of the dominant standards that define interoperability within the home," he says. "I say 'one of' because we won't be the only one."

Still, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth coming for them, ZigBee and Z-Wave are pretty much saying the same things as ever. The consensus for a while now has been that no one connectivity standard will end up connecting the entire smart home — there's always going to be one (or two, or three) more to solve each other's shortcomings. ZigBee and Z-Wave might not be necessary if Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can do that on their own. But they haven't yet.

"We're still in that phase where anybody wins, we all win," Walters says. "Come back six years from now, then we might be knocking each other over the heads."

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