February 2006
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Robert M. Metcalfe, Chairman, Ember Corp. EMAIL INTERVIEW - Robert M. Metcalfe & Ken Sinclair

Robert M. Metcalfe, Chairman, Ember Corporation

Bob Metcalfe is chairman and interim CEO for Ember Corporation as well as a high-tech venture capitalist at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Massachusetts. He serves on the boards of Polaris-backed start-ups including Narad, Ember, Paratek, SiCortex, and Mintera. In 1973, he invented Ethernet at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In 1979, he founded 3Com Corporation and took it public in 1984. During the 1990s, he wrote a weekly Internet column in InfoWorld for over 500,000 information technologists. Metcalfe graduated from MIT, got his PhD from Harvard, taught at Stanford and Cambridge, and was elected in 1997 to the National Academy of Engineering. He received the National Medal of Technology in 2005 and is a Life Trustee of MIT.


Ember and STMicroelectronics partnership boosts the ZigBee market

Our mission is to network embedded micro-controllers with standards-based radio semiconductors and protocol software.

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Control Solutions, Inc

Sinclair:  What is the recent partnership between Ember and STMicro all about?

Metcalfe:  Ember and STMicroelectronics announced what may be the first reciprocal second source and co-development partnership for ZigBee/802.15.4, the embedded micro-controller networking standard. STMicro, one of the world’s largest semiconductor companies, will work with Ember to jointly develop complete semiconductor solutions for the fast-growing ZigBee wireless networking market.

Sinclair:  What is ZigBee, particularly in its relevancy to building automation?

Metcalfe:  ZigBee is a wireless, standards-based radio technology that addresses the unique needs of remote monitoring, control and sensor network applications. It will play an increasing role in enabling embedded networks for building automation. ZigBee is not just low-power radio standards (802.15.4), but also wireless mesh radio protocol stack standards.

Ember is short for "embedded radio." Our mission is to network embedded micro-controllers with standards-based radio semiconductors and protocol software. What Ethernets did for PC networking is what we plan to do for embedded networking of HVAC, lighting, refrigeration and access control, to name a few building automation applications.  

Sinclair:  Where does ZigBee and embedding networking fit into existing networking technologies?

Metcalfe:  Embedded networking is what venture capitalists call a huge "space." The top dozen micro-controller suppliers finely divide 72% of 2004's $12 billion market. And now the embedded networking space is beginning to develop some structure. Let’s call the structure “CSI,” for (c)ontrol, (s)ensor, and (i)dentity.

Above CSI embedded networking, WiFi for PCs and Bluetooth for cell phones require megabits per second and batteries recharged every day.

Just below WiFi and Bluetooth is CONTROL networking for embedded micro-controllers. Control is where Ember mainly plays, with its ZigBee/802.15.4-based radio semiconductors and mesh protocol software. Building control network nodes typically require lower speeds, for example ZigBee's 250Kbps, among many battery-powered micro-controller network nodes, with batteries lasting out beyond five years.

Below ZigBee/802.15.4 are SENSOR and IDENTITY networks (RFID). Roughly speaking, sensor network nodes are less capable than control nodes, often waking up intermittently to report changes. Identity nodes are less capable than sensor nodes, often having no micro-controller and even no batteries -- getting their power over the air.

Reliable Controls Of course it's quite early in embedded networking, and this CSI structure for the diverse embedded networking space may not emerge cleanly. For example, it is possible WiFi and Bluetooth personal networking technologies will move down into embedded CSI applications. Or, sensor and identity technologies will move up, giving Ember and ZigBee/802.15.4 some competition in control networking. Or vice versa. Ember ZigBee-based networks are already being deployed not only in building automation applications, but also sensor applications, and even some higher-end identity applications.

Invading these huge spaces is on the mind of semiconductor suppliers and their customers everywhere, including especially now STMicro.

Sinclair:  Why is this STMicro different from other partnerships?

Metcalfe:  STMicro is not Ember's first embedded networking partner, nor will it be the last, but ST is certainly Ember's deepest partnership so far, by far. Our non-exclusive partnership is quite different from Texas Instrument's swallowing up of Chipcon last month. Ember’s strategy is not to compete with the suppliers of the world's 10 billion micro-controllers. We do not think that's what the users of micro-controllers need. We think micro-controller users need us to partner with the many and varied existing suppliers to get them ZigBee/802.15.4-enabled, or as we say in Boston, to get them Ember-enabled.

So Ember remains independent of STMicro and intent on working with all micro-controller vendors, including TI. We intend our partnership not only to benefit our respective customers, but also -- through "coopetition" -- to accelerate development of the whole ZigBee market. Our products will be reciprocal second sources. The ZigBee market is ready for and now has its first semiconductor and software second sources.

Sinclair:  What do manufacturers and integrators of building automation systems stand to gain from this partnership?

Metcalfe:  Ember's EM260 ZigBee co-processor will soon be available from ST mostly for their OEM customers and from Ember for everyone else's. For example, Siemens, Hitachi and Andover Controls are all developing control systems based on our technology. Our central offer to these customers is to put the EM260 next to existing micro-controllers and connect them up with the standard serial interface. We are offering an open-source programming interface to the Ember ZigBee Serial Protocol (EZSP). Code running on application micro-controllers designed for building controls can use EZSP to talk to their EM260s and thereby become ZigBee-enabled.

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