Low-power wireless technology ZigBee is in danger of succumbing to the fragmentation so far avoided by standards-based specs such as Wi-Fi and WiMax, according to market researchers.

The rapid spread of proprietary products based on the same standard as ZigBee - IEEE 802.15.4 - means ZigBee will only make up about 10 percent of the 802.15.4 market in five years' time, according to a study from analysts West Technology Research Solutions (WTRS) last week.

At the same time, investors led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have pumped millions of pounds into Ember, one of the leading companies pushing ZigBee.

Like Wi-Fi, ZigBee is an interoperability specification based on an IEEE standard. But while most 802.11b or 802.11g products, for example, also adhere to the Wi-Fi specification, the same isn't true for ZigBee, which isn't even expected to be complete until later this year. In the meantime, manufacturers are already coming out with proprietary products based on 802.15.4, ratified last year.

ZigBee is designed to connect the billions of devices that contain micro-controllers but aren't network-enabled, such as home appliances, industrial automation and building security. It uses low data transmission speeds but also consumes very little power, meaning ZigBee batteries could last long periods of time.

Similar pre-release issues have affected emerging networking standards such as 802.11g, but so far manufacturers' commitment to Wi-Fi inter-operability has prevented serious fragmentation. Not so with ZigBee: "The industry faces a high risk of marketplace fragmentation and likelihood for market dominance by proprietary solutions based on the 802.15.4 IEEE standard," said WTRS in the report.

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Manoeuvres by proprietary vendors have led WTRS to downgrade its projections for ZigBee's share of the 802.15.4 market since its last report. The firm believes 19.0 million chipsets will ship in 2006, or 19.7 percent of the 802.15.4 market, growing to 123 million units in 2009, or 10.2 percent of the market.

"Instead of becoming a standard for low data rate network environments, ZigBee is in danger of evolving into simply one among many proprietary options," said WTRS principal analyst Kirsten West, in a statement. "The proliferation of proprietary 802.15.4 solutions in advance of the availability of the ZigBee standard has effectively marginalised the overall market opportunity for ZigBee."

Other analysts are more bullish on ZigBee's prospects, with ABI Research projecting 80 million ZigBee chipsets will ship in 2006, mainly because of a strong potential market for home networking, with the industrial market growing later on.

Investors appear unfazed by ZigBee's fragmentation, with Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital leading a $25 million investment into Ember on Friday. Ember is one of ZigBee's main backers, and the ZigBee Alliance uses Ember's chip architecture to test specification interoperability, according to the company.

New investors in Ember's latest round included ChevronTexaco Technology Ventures, Hitachi and WestAM, with existing investors Polaris Venture Partners, DFJ New England, GrandBanks Capital, RRE Ventures and DFJ ePlanet Ventures also contributing. Ember has now raised a total of $53 million.

Bob Metcalfe, creator of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, has joined the company as chairman, Ember said on Friday. "As Ethernet has connected millions of computers, Ember's technology has the potential to network-enable billions of devices that previously couldn't communicate," Metcalfe said in a statement. "The company's early commitment to ZigBee will further accelerate the adoption of Ember's wireless mesh network solutions in the marketplace."

Other wireless networking protocols in danger of splitting up include the upcoming 802.11n standard for Wi-Fi at speeds over 100Mbit/s and the 802.15.3a UltraWideBand-based standard for high data rate, short range communications.