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Z-Wave is making a huge change so it doesn’t get left behind in the smart home wars

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It’s turning into a fully open standard, according to Silicon Labs

Image: Z-Wave Alliance

When Apple, Google, Amazon, and Zigbee announced that they were going to work together on a common smart home standard yesterday, one huge name was missing: Z-Wave, a system meant for low-power smart devices like locks and lightbulbs.

The competing smart home system has long been criticized by rivals as not truly being an open standard — despite outward appearances otherwise — and it’s easy to imagine that’s why it was left out. So today, The Z-Wave Alliance is making an announcement that would seem to fix that. It’s going to open up a part of the standard that’s long been locked down as a money-making scheme, theoretically turning Z-Wave into a fully open rival.

Until now, a single company — which just happens to own and develop Z-Wave — has been responsible for providing all of the chips for Z-Wave radios. That means there’s no competition driving down prices, and if Z-Wave were to ever become truly dominant, that company, Silicon Labs, would be in a position to make a whole lot of money.

With today’s change, Silicon Labs is going to start letting other companies make Z-Wave radios, too. That addresses the biggest ongoing complaint with Z-Wave: that Silicon Labs (and Sigma Designs, which owned Z-Wave for years before it) effectively had control over the entire ecosystem.

“I would acknowledge that that seemed to have been the only objection I was always confronted with,” Mitchell Klein, executive director of the Z-Wave Alliance, said on a call with The Verge.

The goal is to eventually turn Z-Wave into a completely open standard. Even the Z-Wave Alliance — an apparent standards body, which seems to mostly be in charge of certifying device compatibility — will be spun out into a fully independent organization in charge of developing Z-Wave, rather than existing as part of Silicon Labs. More details about the spinoff will be announced in “the forthcoming months,” Klein said.

That would turn Silicon Labs into just one company among many that are trying to make money off of Z-Wave. That might seem like a strange decision just a couple of years after buying the Z-Wave business for $240 million, but it’s a risk that makes somewhat more sense under Silicon Labs than it would have under prior owners.

Silicon Labs’ main business is selling radios for all kinds of smart devices, including those that work with competing connectivity systems. Its radios are inside Philips Hue lightbulbs, Ikea Tradfri products, Ring’s alarm system, and even Amazon’s Echo Plus, says Johan Pedersen, Silicon Labs’ manager of smart home marketing. With an already successful radio business — and the only Z-Wave radio business around at this point — Silicon Labs thinks it’ll be able to compete just fine with other entrants.

The hope is that, by opening Z-Wave up, adoption will expand. If Z-Wave becomes more popular, more radios will be needed, and Silicon Labs will be best positioned to sell them. Already, the company says it’s run into hurdles making sales because of the closed system because many security providers won’t buy anything they can’t source from multiple vendors.

Silicon Labs may also have seen the direction things were heading. In recent years, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have become more common options for smart home devices (even though their higher power requirements put them at a disadvantage in many cases), and Zigbee has been successful with lower-power devices like lights that Z-Wave would traditionally aim for.

With the announcement from Apple, Google, Amazon, and Zigbee yesterday — forming a group known as Connected Home over IP — Silicon Labs may have realized Z-Wave was starting to get left behind. While that new group isn’t developing a competing radio communications standard that would replace Z-Wave, it is going to try to establish a system that smart home devices can all use to connect with one another. If it works out, those devices, which will primarily rely on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi at first, are likely to take off among consumers, leaving less room for Z-Wave.

But ultimately, Silicon Labs just wants to sell radios, and both announcements are really about making smart home tech more accessible. Z-Wave may not be involved in Connected Home over IP, but Silicon Labs is. (It’s mentioned in the announcement as a board member of Zigbee that will contribute to the project.)

“We see these two big initiatives being complementary to each other,” Pedersen said. Later, Klein added, “I think it’s important to note that at Silicon Labs, we see the big picture.”