The Thread Group has invited more companies to join its effort at harmonizing the "Internet of things" in consumers' homes, but it still faces a tangled industry with competing and overlapping technologies.
The organization launched in July with a core group of major technology companies including Samsung, ARM Holdings, Freescale Semiconductor, and Google's recently acquired home devices business, Nest Labs. On Tuesday evening at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, it announced that other companies can now apply to join. The group is open to anyone, with memberships starting at US$2,500 per year.
Thread is developing a networking software stack for linking many types of devices in homes, such as lights, security systems and heating and cooling equipment. Thread devices would form a mesh rather than connecting through a single hub in the center of the network, which could offer longer range and greater reliability, avoiding a single point of failure. Thread is meant to augment Wi-Fi, forming a second network for small, power-sipping connected devices instead of laptops and tablets.
The software stack uses the 6LoWPAN personal-area network technology, which is based on IEEE 802.15.4, a low-power wireless protocol that's already in the market and uses the same chips as ZigBee, another low-power system. The stack also uses IPv6, the next generation of Internet Protocol, so every home device can have a unique Internet address. Networks will be able to accommodate at least 250 devices, according to Thread.
The group turned to existing technologies so it could make sure Thread products get out to market quickly, said Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical product manager at Nest Labs. It expects to start certifying products next June, much sooner than it could have done building a standard from the ground up, he said.
Because the Thread stack only tells devices how to talk to one another and doesn't include an application layer, vendors can use different applications and user interfaces on top of it. Any application layer that uses IPv6, such as ZigBee Smart Energy and the Internet Engineering Task Force's CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol), can run on top of Thread, Boross said. The common networking platform will let different types of devices communicate automatically without users having to organize a network, Boross said.
For example, Nest thermostats, which already use an early form of Thread, will be able to control home ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans, another founding member of the group. That interaction was demonstrated at Tuesday's event. By turning on fans, the smart thermostat could hold off activating an air conditioner, saving energy and money. In addition, signals from motion sensors around the home could activate fans exclusively in rooms people are currently using.
The group also says Thread networks can easily coexist and communicate with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth because all three can use IPv6. Having that commonality will make it fairly easy for vendors to add gateways between the networks without having to build dedicated products for it, Boross said.
It's not hard to see why component makers and consumer electronics vendors want to make home IoT more useful and easy to use. Various security systems and other smart-home products have been on the market for some time but don't yet interact much to bring added value. IoT is intended to bridge those gaps in homes, enterprises, cities and other settings.
"It is potentially the greatest growth opportunity that's ever existed for semiconductor chips," said Gregg Lowe, CEO of Freescale. He estimated that the global market for connected-home devices alone would reach $15 billion in 2015, double the revenue in 2013.
But Thread will have to prove itself to both manufacturers and consumers in a world where many specifications are competing for attention and vendors are choosing protocols. More than 300 people attended Tuesday's event, but after the presentations, several vendors said they want to see the specification before deciding whether to use Thread. One questioned the use of IEEE 802.15.4 as the underlying technology.
"They would be smart to add Bluetooth," said Bill Drake, strategic technology manager at home heating and cooling manufacturer White-Rodgers, part of Emerson Climate Technologies. Emerson has made connected-home products with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 802.15.4, and Bluetooth has some key advantages, Drake said. For one thing, it hops from one frequency to another within the unlicensed 2.4GHz band. That's important for reliable networking, especially in multi-unit dwellings where there are many Wi-Fi networks and devices such as baby monitors competing in that crowded band, he said. Bluetooth and its low-power twin, Bluetooth Low Energy, are also included in many products already.
One thing Thread has that Bluetooth doesn't yet is the ability to form mesh networks, which was an important criterion for Thread, according to Boross. Mesh networks can be easily extended throughout a home without concerns about the range of a central coordinator device or the need for repeaters. Networks based on 802.15.4 do have mechanisms for avoiding interference, such as the capability to identify the least busy frequency nearby and use it, Boross said in an interview.
John Calagaz, CTO of CentraLite Systems, which makes many connected-home products sold through major retailers, was optimistic about Thread. But true interoperability requires an application layer in addition to the network stack, to make things easier for consumers, Calagaz said. He would like to see the Thread Group add the ZigBee Home Automation (ZigBee HA) standard, which CentraLite uses in some of its products, on top of the Thread stack.