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WiFi will be the ultimate winner, say noted researchers

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By Jesse Berst

 

Whether you realize it or not, if you are taking part in the smart grid, you are also taking part in the larger Internet of Things (IoT). After nearly two decades of predictions that the IoT was "just around the corner," it now appears that the smart grid will be the first example at scale.

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Harbor Research Releases New WPAN Market

Development Analysis Report

The next cycle of technology and systems development in the smart connected systems arena is supposed to be setting the stage for a multi-year wave of growth based on the convergence of innovations in software architectures; back-room data center operations; wireless and broadband communications; and most importantly, smaller, more powerful edge devices and sensors connected to personal and local area networks.

But is it?

It seems most of the items on the list I just mentioned are living up to their potential except the wireless sensor opportunity. We find ourselves more often asking the question: “Do we really strongly believe that the WPAN market opportunity is finally reaching its tipping point for growth?” By the numbers, WPANs make up about half of the total of all shipped devices however, if we did a little deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that these figures are a bit misleading and without Bluetooth technology, and in our most recent forecast analysis on the Smart Systems and Internet of Things arena, WPAN only amounts to about 5% of the total market of connections by around 2016 – how can that be?

Overall the IoT space has 4 main network platforms that need to be addressed - Wireless Personal Area Networks, Wireless Local Area Networks, Wireless Wide Area Networks and Wire-Line. By mid-decade we estimate that the predicted shipments will be: Wire-Line at roughly 20%, WWAN at about 50%, WLAN at 25%, and WPAN at 5% percent. WPAN, exclusive of Bluetooth WLR/Audio, is still a relatively small portion of the whole market opportunity in the short-term and would still only be a quarter of "old" Wire-Line technology. Why is this? How can we change this?

Complications Within the Space

Some things that look easy turn out to be hard. That’s part of the strange saga of WPAN and sensor network arena and the perpetual attempts to get itself off the ground. But some things that should be kept simple are allowed to get unnecessarily complex, and that’s the other part of the story. The drive to develop technology can inspire grandiose visions that make simple thinking seem somehow embarrassing or not worthwhile. That’s not a good thing when defining and deploying real-world technology.

The Internet of Things market pre-supposes the existence of a zero-infrastructure, ad-hoc network that makes seamless physical connection possible. How will the physical aspects of this networking actually take place? How will virtually any device, right down to a lowly light bulb, become a peer that connects at will to the global data network?

Learn more about our Wireless Personal Area Network Report here.

Obviously, billions of devices of wildly varying types cannot each receive individual attention and configuration, or conform to elaborate, a priori specifications. If it literally takes a network engineer to screw in a smart light bulb, pervasive computing and the Internet of Things will never happen.

As we speak, engineers and managers alike are getting tripped up by the myriad of standards out there. This confusion can lead to ill-defined specs, unsuccessful go-to-market strategies, strained partnerships and even dissuade innovation and stagnate the market.

Our Wireless Personal Area Network Report is designed to help mitigate these risks and bring clarity and insight to the market. We know from experience that a comprehensive view of the space is exponentially more valuable than simple metrics and narratives. Only by understanding the interdependencies between market size, trends, forces, competitors, applications, scenarios and opportunities, can we develop success growth strategies.

What conclusions can be reached from this analysis about the attractiveness of current WPAN technologies within the IoT arena:

Wireless networking is essential for the success of the IoT; the 3 main types of WWAN, WLAN and WPAN we predict will form more than 80% of the IoT network market by 2016

Today, there are multiple, parallel standards competing for dominance for short-range wireless IoT networking, including Zigbee and 6LoWPAN (and related IEEE802.15.4 variants), Z-Wave as well as WLAN standard IEEE802.11 Wi-Fi.

Open, interoperable communications standards are why the Internet has succeeded. A unified interoperable architecture will also be required for WPAN networks to succeed in the IoT

We believe that the users and the market in general will demand interoperability - users don’t care about network technologies and protocols per se, as much as they just want everything to work in a simple straightforward manner. In the end, if a user needs to call an engineer to install a smart device the IoT won’t grow and prosper any time soon

Our research and analysis strongly indicates that Internet Protocol (IP) is becoming the dominant choice to link all IoT network types, including WPAN applications; there really isn’t another viable alternative available. Supporters of IEEE802.15.4, including the National Institute Science and Technology (NIST) have forced the use of IP on alliances like Zigbee because of this

Given the growing recognition on the part of users of the criticality of interoperability, and unless multi-standard chips become available soon, interoperability will be very difficult to achieve based on the current crop of overlapping and conflicting WPAN standards

Gateways will somewhat off-set this critical requirement providing some breathing room for players but ultimately we believe the market will evolve towards direct peer-to-peer interactions and reject the cost and complexity of gateway solutions

Based on our research and scenario development, IEEE802.15.4 and Zigbee / 6LoWPAN, as they presently stand, are unlikely to dominate the IoT. We believe, based on our analysis, that they will evolve to become ‘specialist’ or niche standards - they are simply not capable of performing all the required network functions across the diversity of devices that require WPAN technology - streaming data, large file transfers and messaging are generally required.

Neither IEEE802.11 and IEEE802.15.4 standards were designed specifically for the IoT; they just happened to be the two alternatives available to users during the time-frame they began to explore wireless sensor and device networks. Arguably neither are fully suitable and both have their respective strengths and weaknesses.

The perceived advantages of IEEE802.15.4 over IEEE802.11 are being reduced to a debate about power consumption / battery life in a handful of device categories. Today battery lives on IEEE802.11 chipsets are coming down and in practice can already achieve in excess of four years in trials on typical low duty cycle WSN devices such as thermostats. We expect power consumption to continue to be reduced as mobile applications drive technology developer investments in Wi-Fi chips.

From our perspective, if the market allows the conflict to continue, low power Wi-Fi is likely to become the higher volume winner with IEEE802.15.4 / ZigBee / 6loWPAN becoming a set of niche network standards for specialist applications where interoperability and IP are not required.

This viewpoint is primarily driven by the overwhelming volume of existing devices already utilizing Wi-Fi that will need to integrate and interact with a wide variety of WPAN devices. Related factors supporting this viewpoint include:

Now that mesh Wi-Fi is a reality there is likely to be a surge in applications and consumer interest in ‘free’ WiFi connections in metro area networks and this will further cloud the advantages of IEEE802.15.4 mesh in the eyes of consumers and users

The collaboration between Bluetooth SIG and the Wi-Fi Alliance on Bluetooth HS and the coexistance of these networks in many mobile devices is also likely to further weaken the position of other WPAN standards like IEEE802.15.4 / Zigbee / 6LoWPAN

Ultimately we think that the war for consumers’ attention may have already been won by Wi-Fi in infrastructural networks and Bluetooth in simple Peer-to-Peer ones... at least in the consumer / professional electronics space. Zigbee as a protocol will attempt to traverse to IP or an alternate version of IP such as Zigbee IP / 6LoWPAN and may well succeed. However, many OEM’s could end up with stranded assets and embarrassing field problems due to premature deployments.

There have been previous high profile examples of industries trying to create niche standards for special purpose networks only to eventually evolve to open IP standards years later. This circumstance is typified by the evolution of fieldbus networks in the industrial arena in the 1990’s and early part of this decade. Several larger players slowed down their own developments, plowed billions of dollars into supporting closed and then ‘pseudo open’ standards and fought over the spoils for nearly 20 years only to find the market eventually came to understand the benefits of open IP based network standards. We see no reason that this lesson from history shouldn’t be applied now if the group of current players continue to push for a special purpose approach again.

Fully understanding the trade-offs between power and bandwidth across all network topologies and traffic types is a necessity and our research in this area has revealed much misinformation and protectionism by the various players. Reaching a neutral objective view point will be essential as OEM’s struggle with these complex issues.

There is a major opportunity for select market participants to act as an ‘IoT architect or catalyst’ and harmonize the network standards for short range WLAN and WPAN applications around an existing, new or adapted suite of interoperable standards. Our analysis also underscores the need for WPAN technology to mature and become easier to apply and manage in order for the market to truly take off.

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