Will the promise of the Smart Home finally be realised as standards converge?

We have already seen how the connected home market is overwhelmed by a morass of incompatible and competing standards, and products made by different manufacturers are unlikely to work together unless they use high-level APIs such as Google’s “Works with Nest”. In the dumb home, interoperability was taken for granted. An incandescent bulb would work with any switch and thermostats were readily interchangeable. The addition of complex app & web based interfaces, the foundation of ‘smart’ systems has created a multitude of incompatible systems, which inevitably leads to solutions becoming rapidly obsolete. However, the industry is now taking its first baby steps towards sanity through a convergence of two home connectivity systems. Earlier this month, the Zigbee Alliance and Thread Group announced that they will collaborate to enable the Cluster Library to run over Thread networks. But what does this really mean?

For the many of us confused by the bewildering array of home connectivity protocols, the blog post below provides a remarkably clear summary of the options available.

Home connectivity standards

 

Effectively, there are three family of in-home wireless networking standards:

  • Those based on a standard called IEEE 802.15.4 designed for low-power usage and able to run on batteries for months on end. Both Thread and Zigbee belong to this family.
  • An evolution of WiFi, which although has been created to maximise range and speed, is now being seen as a route to long-life low-power devices.
  • Bluetooth, which in its Low Energy profile is becoming the dominant means of connectivity for wearable devices, is also seen by some as a home networking standard.

The Zigbee Alliance claim that over 1600 products are using Zigbee. Although Zigbee has a multitude of application profiles (what is referred to as the cluster library) including Health Care, Home Automation, Remote Control and Smart Energy, in practice it appears that Zigbee certification alone is not any guarantee of interoperability. This is why a new release of the Zigbee standard – version 3.0 is being built to include all profiles except Smart Metering in a single release (Home Automation, ZigBee Light Link, ZigBee Building Automation, ZigBee Retail Services, ZigBee Health Care and ZigBee Telecommunication services). The agreement should see Thread using these profiles as the basis for connecting different classes of device.

Given that many companies are members of both alliances, it seems to me that this agreement is a case of common sense prevailing. The investment in application profiles by the Zigbee Alliance will be maintained, while the Google grouping maintains the IP-friendly 6LowPAN IPv6 mesh-based networking. Given the limited range of 2.4GHz 802.15.4 networks, mesh networking capability will be a must for creating resilient and reliable smart home networks. Many silicon vendors will be happy, as it cements the role of investments already made in Zigbee, and finally we may start to see smart home products from different companies that interwork with each other.

The losers in all of this? Well, it must be the backers of Bluetooth, including Qualcomm, who although have absolutely cornered the mobile and wearable space, were unable to create a mesh version of the standard. To a lesser extent, the Zigbee Alliance are effectively admitting that Thread provides a better route to IP-based mesh networking.

A note: Only four months ago, I picked Bluetooth as a likely winner. Goes to show that making tech predictions is a mug’s game!

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