The Common Thread?

Thread Could Become the Home Wireless Standard

Thread_lAnother week, another home specification-making organisation. This one could really matter.

Yesterday, ARM, Nest Labs, Samsung and several other component and device makers announced the formation of Thread Group, an organization to standardise and promote a home wireless protocol called Thread. This development was not completely unexpected.

There’s still a high level of uncertainty among manufacturers about connectivity specifications for smart devices in the home. This has led to an array of different wireless protocols being used in relatively simple and ubiquitous devices such as light switches and bulbs. We also note the frustrating extent of incompatibility among devices which run on the same spec. For example, ZigBee-enabled smart bulbs from one manufacturer don’t easily work with ZigBee-enabled bulbs from another.

The Thread protocol isn’t an entirely new one; it’s built on the IEEE’s 802.15.4 low-power connectivity spec and the Google-backed 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low Power Wireless Personal Area Networks) standardised within IETF. Google had been working to establish 6LoWPAN as a low-cost, low-power, IPv6-enabled connectivity spec, and the acquisition of Nest Labs has given Google an avenue through which to launch 6LoWPAN to a wider audience.

Thread’s competitors include ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth Smart and Wi-Fi, as well as a series of proprietary technologies. A main selling point for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is that objects based on these can connect directly with a smartphone or tablet. However, all ZigBee and Z-Wave products to date require a connecting hub to be part of the home network, an additional expense and complication for the consumer. ARM’s status as a founding member of Thread Group indicates that we could see Thread-capable smartphones and tablets in the coming years.

In addition to ARM, Nest Labs and Samsung, Thread Group founding members include Freescale Semiconductor, Silicon Labs and Yale (owned by Assa Abloy, the world’s largest maker of locks).

We note that ARM, Freescale Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, Samsung and Assa Abloy are also members of the ZigBee Alliance. Membership overlaps aren’t unusual, but the similarity of the two specifications (both are based on 802.15.4 and support mesh networking) could lead to an eventual fusion of the two organizations. ZigBee has a strong legacy and is already used in millions of installed devices, including several popular smart bulbs. Thread’s native use of IPv6 could provide insurance of future network compatibility. To bring true compatibility to users and a low cost in the current mess of mesh specifications, one standard will have to prevail.