Thread pitches Google against Bluetooth in smart home July 16 2014

Google's Nest unit, Samsung and ARM head up latest IoT-focused standards group, with focus on 802.15.4 wireless home networks

By Caroline Gabriel

The latest in a long line of would-be standards for the internet of things (IoT), Thread is positioning itself against Bluetooth Smart and Z-Wave as the personal area network of choice for the smart home. Backed by the powerhouses of Google (via Nest) and Samsung, Thread is based on the 802.15.4 specification, and so its best chance of success will be to unite the advantages, and the supporter bases, of two 15.4-based standards, ZigBee and 6LoWPAN.

The Thread Group initially contains Nest, the smart home gadgets maker owned by Google, and Samsung, along with ARM, Freescale, Silicon Labs, Yale Security and ceiling fan maker, Big Ass Fans. Samsung and Google both have devices as their entry point to the smart home, and from there the broader IoT, but have ambitions to influence the whole stack, using 'open' vehicles to try squeeze mutual arch-rival Apple back behind its garden walls.

In contrast to some other recent IoT groupings - such as the AllSeen Alliance, based on Qualcomm's AllJoyn technology, and the Open Interconnect Consortium, led by Intel - Thread aims to standardize the physical network which could then support any of those higher layer standards.

Thread is initially heavily focused on 6LoWPAN, because it is already used by Nest, and because it supports IPv6, important to ensure the IoT is future-proofed against running out of address space. 6LoWPAN is effectively a version of IP for the embedded space, providing a compression format for IPv6 that is optimized for low power, low bandwidth wireless links.

But the new body also hopes to lure the larger base of ZigBee developers, claiming many ZigBee devices could be upgraded to support Thread with just a software update. Attracting a home-focused ZigBee company like GreenPeak would be a valuable endorsement in the first major target market, the smart house.

Thread will add software to the 802.15.4/IPv6 foundation, for functions such as routing, set-up, security and device wake-up, to standardize these capabilities and reduce power. The Thread group will provide testing and certification for its specifications, emulating WiFi and Bluetooth rather than the more splintered ZigBee. Some Nest products already use an early form of Thread, rather than vanilla 6LoWPAN, pointing to the heavy influence of Google's subsidiary on the shape of these specs, though there is also likely to be considerable input from ARM via its Sensinode acquisition. The Finnish software firm was a significant contributor to 6LoWPAN and other low power M2M standards.

To win sufficient critical mass to become a de facto standard, Thread will need to prove superiority over Bluetooth Smart. The new group's backers argue it will do this because 802.15.4 supports true mesh - a useful architecture for home networks and not currently enabled by Bluetooth - and the new Thread additions will promise stronger encryption and IPv6, and even lower power consumption.

The appeal for ZigBee stalwarts - which include Samsung, the only major handset maker to propose implementing the protocol in mainstream smartphones - is that the industry weight of Google might give their standard a boost in the home market, where it has had far less impact than in the industrial world.

"Existing wireless networking approaches were introduced long before the IoT gained ground. The Thread protocol takes existing technologies and combines the best parts of each to provide a better way to connect products in the home," said Vint Cerf, VP and chief internet evangelist for Google and advisor to the Thread Group.