Samsung, ARM, and Nest launch Thread, a low-power network for the smart home
By Stephen Lawson
Google’s Nest subsidiary and heavy hitters including Samsung Electronics and Arm Holdings are launching the latest bid to make sensors, cameras, appliances and other devices in homes easily talk to each other.
Machines are already communicating around consumers’ homes, while others are chatting in factories and power grids. But what’s out there today is more a collection of different networks than the Internet of Things that’s supposed to transform our lives. The point of IoT is the data points it collects and the things it can control. The more of those that come into play, the more useful it will be.
That’s the purpose of the new specification, called Thread, which was announced on Tuesday and is expected to appear in certified products starting next year. But it’s jumping into a game where there are already several technologies in use, including ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth Smart.
IoT spans many areas, including far-flung factories and transportation networks, but homes may see the most closely watched new Internet devices in the next few years. Products from a growing army of vendors, including early mover Nest, are expected to control systems such as lights, heating and burglar alarms in the coming years. Today, they largely speak different networking protocols, all of which are designed to communicate over relatively short distances without sucking up battery life.
Thread is one more stab at that problem, though its backer, the Thread Group, says it’s not another standards body. Instead, the Thread spec is based on existing standards and adds software for functions such as security, routing, setup and device wakeup that should save precious battery life and make IoT easier for consumers to use, according to Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group.
“We wanted to use something off the shelf, but … we knew that we had to do something new to make the best products,” said Boross, who also works on the product marketing team at Nest.
Thread’s foundation is 6LoWPAN, a power-efficient PAN (personal area network) protocol. But there are two standards underlying that one that are even more important: IPv6 (Internet Protocol, Version 6), the next-generation network spec that has an almost unlimited address space, and IEEE 802.15.4, which is used in chips that are already being mass-produced for ZigBee and a few other technologies.
IPv6 future-proofs Thread for the future of IP networks, and 802.15.4 will keep manufacturers from having to design and ramp up a new generation of silicon, Boross said. Products from Nest already use an early form of Thread. It’s even possible that some ZigBee devices could turn into Thread gear with just a software upgrade, he said.
The biggest threat to home IoT today is the very complexity that all the current and emerging devices present to consumers, said Lee Ratliff, a low-power wireless analyst at research firm IHS Technology.
“Thread’s not making that any easier by offering an alternative to existing solutions,” Ratliff said. But competition there isn’t new and won’t be over soon, he said. “There’s just so much money to be made in that space, nobody’s willing to give up easily.”
Bluetooth Smart, a lower power version of the familiar personal-area network standard, has the inside track because it’s already in many smartphones, Ratliff said. The specification works with all the major mobile operating systems, including iOS, Android and Windows, and the companies behind those OSes would have to have a good reason to integrate another protocol if they already have one, he said.
“You cannot underestimate the importance of Bluetooth Smart’s position in the mobile platform,” Ratliff said.
The main thing Bluetooth Smart lacks is the ability to form mesh networks that don’t depend on connections to any one device, Ratliff said. Mesh networks are resilient because connections can be rerouted if a link or device fails somewhere. Thread and other protocols use mesh networking already, but there are efforts under way to add that feature to Bluetooth Smart, he said.
Thread Group’s Boross doubts Bluetooth Smart will be able to make that leap. Thread, ZigBee and everything else based on 802.15.4 can communicate over tens of meters, or hundreds of feet, between devices on a mesh. Among other shortcomings, Bluetooth Smart won’t be able to compete at that range, Boross said.
Thread does have an impressive lineup of supporting companies, which in addition to Nest, Samsung and Arm includes Freescale Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, Yale Security, and Big Ass Fans, a maker of home and commercial ceiling fans. That doesn’t necessarily put the weight of all those vendors on the side of Thread and against rival specifications, IHS’s Ratliff pointed out: It’s common for big tech companies to back multiple technologies, some just for research, then use the cold facts of market share to choose which to implement.
But the group has chosen a proven model for getting its specification out there. Like the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Thread Group is positioning itself as a market education group that will carry out product certification, testing products for compliance and interoperability before allowing them to carry the Thread logo. The Wi-Fi Alliance, formed in 1999, estimates that 2 billion Wi-Fi products were sold last year.