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Google-backed Thread Group opens membership, wades into home IoT marsh

Stephen Lawson | Oct. 2, 2014
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 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.


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