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.
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