Google recently announced a new networking protocol called Thread that aims to create a standard for communication between connected household devices.
If that description sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Thread joins similar collaborative efforts led by the likes of Intel, Qualcomm, GE and others in the race to establish standards for the Internet of Things, which is widely considered the next technology frontier.
The complexity of these standardization efforts has evoked comparisons to the VHS and Betamax competition in the 1980s. Re/Code’s Ina Fried wrote, “there’s no way all of these devices will actually be able to all talk to each other until all this gets settled with either a victory or a truce.” In the meantime, we’re likely to see some debate among the competing factions.
“If this works out at all like past format wars, heavyweights will line up behind each different approach and issue lots of announcements about how much momentum theirs are getting,” Fried wrote. “One effort will undoubtedly gain the lead, eventually everyone will coalesce and then, someday down the road, perhaps all these Internet of Things devices will actually be able to talk to one another.”
So here’s a guide to the current state of affairs in the race to standardize the Internet of Things, along with what people are saying about each.
A recent Reuters article describes the objective of the Thread networking protocol pretty well.
“Thread is a networking protocol with security and low-power features that make it better for connecting household devices than other technologies such as Wifi, NFC, Bluetooth or ZigBee, said Chris Boross, a Nest product manager who heads the new group. Nest's products already use a version of Thread.
The radio chips used for Thread-compatible smart devices are already in many existing connected home products that use ZigBee, like Philips Hue smart lightbulbs.”
Thread is a collaborative effort between Google’s Nest branch, which is the result of Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of the smart thermometer maker in January, and several companies: Samsung Electronics, ARM Holdings, Freescale Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, Big Ass Fans, and a lock company named Yale.
Chris Boross, a product manager at Nest who will head up the Thread group, told Reuters that new Thread-compatible products likely won’t reach the market until a product certification program is launched next year, but added that “people can start building Thread today.” Essentially, that means no new products can officially call themselves “Thread-compatible” until Thread grants them a certificate to do so. But the standard’s new availability means companies hoping to release Thread-compatible products can start building products based on the standard now so they’re ready when the certification program launches next year.
Thread differentiates itself from other protocols by relying on a low-power radio protocol called IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks, or 6LoWPAN. As Thread said in a press release, this will involve mesh networks that “scale to hundreds of devices with no single point of failure” and which feature “banking-class encryption.”
In her article at Re/Code, Fried pointed out that, “in theory,” this means Thread could work in concert with the other standards, which still utilize the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks that Thread does not. However, Boross added that the Thread group has yet to communicate with those behind the other IoT standards. Either way, using devices that support multiple standards defeats the purpose of developing those standards in the first place.
The open source AllJoyn protocol was initially developed by Qualcomm and first presented at the 2011 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. After a few years of middling success with AllJoyn, Qualcomm passed the source code onto The Linux Foundation in December 2013. From there, Qualcomm and The Linux Foundation formed the AllSeen Alliance, enlisting Cisco, Microsoft, LG, and HTC as members, among many others.
AllJoyn provides tools for the entire process of connecting and maintaining devices on a Wi-Fi network. Manufacturers can use the AllJoyn framework to create their own custom apps for onboarding devices onto a Wi-Fi network, complete with control and notification services. So, as shown in these promotional videos from Qualcomm, users can turn on a coffee maker before going to bed, ask it to brew a cup of coffee for them in the morning, and receive a notification on their smartphone when the cup is ready. This is what many envisioned when the Internet of Things started gaining momentum in consumer markets, and the AllSeen Alliance aims to establish AllJoyn as the protocol that makes it happen.
Being the first of these consumer-facing IoT standards, AllJoyn received glowing reviews in the press, particularly after the formation of the AllSeen Alliance. It promised to solve a problem that anyone who’s struggled with Wi-Fi connectivity or Bluetooth pairing has experienced, and, using that solution, suggested new possibilities in the Internet of Things.
“It's a crucial milestone for connecting all of your gadgets, because not only is AllJoyn compatible with small devices but it includes proximity detection,” Leah Hunter wrote at Fast Company in January. “So if your phone rings and it’s across the room while you're watching TV, the caller ID will display on the TV screen, regardless of whether it’s the same brand as your phone or whether you have the same carrier as your cable operator.”
Given the lack of standards at the time, others saw AllJoyn as a safe bet as an IoT protocol.
“While the typical trouble with standards has been well-documented, AllSeen might have more of a chance than most,” The Verge’s Sean Hollister wrote in December. “Since its main task of negotiating connections is device, OS, and network agnostic, it shouldn't necessarily become obsolete when newer technologies come along.”
Open Interconnect Consortium
Less than a week before Nest announced Thread, Intel announced its Open Interconnect Consortium, boasting Atmel, Dell, Broadcom, Samsung, and Wind River as members and speaking simultaneously of competition with Qualcomm and collaboration with the open source community.
The press release announcing the formation of the OIC quoted Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, which is also a founding member of the AllSeen Alliance.
"Open source is about collaboration and about choice. The Open Interconnect Consortium is yet another proof point how open source helps to fuel innovation," Zemlin said. "We look forward to the OIC's contribution in fostering an open environment to support the billions of connected devices coming online."
At the same time, several members of the OIC spoke anonymously to The New York Times’ Bits blog about a general sense of distrust surrounding Qualcomm’s intentions with AllJoyn. And Imad N. Sousou, general manager of Intel’s open-source technology center, told Bits that no other effort, the AllSeen Alliance included, fit what the OIC member companies saw as the appropriate plan for IoT standards.
“Intel and its partners evaluated all of the existing work,” Mr. Sousou said. “It’s not being done in a way that will drive widespread adoption.”
Even while The Linux Foundation praised the OIC, Qualcomm senior vice president Rob Chandhok publicly denounced its member companies for failing to collaborate on the AllJoyn standard instead.
“We had a public post saying we wouldn’t make a profit from AllJoyn,” he said. “Part of my puzzlement here is that if they’ve got a problem, they should come to the party and fix it.”
The OIC is still in its very early stages, but so far the only differences between its effort and the AllSeen Alliance is the rejection of Qualcomm, or any major for-profit vendor, as the creator of an allegedly open-sourced protocol. Gary Martz, a product line manager at Intel, told Gigaom that the key difference is that the protocol would be created as part of a collaborative process between all of the members. Qualcomm, on the other hand, created AllJoyn years before handing it over to the AllSeen Alliance, and still remains a presence in its dealings.
The July announcement of the OIC, months before it will release the first of its specifications, reflects that sentiment. It seems the member companies just wanted the world to know that a collaborative effort was underway, without the influence of Qualcomm.
Industrial Internet Consortium
Announced in March, the Industrial Internet Consortium was founded by Intel, Cisco, AT&T, GE, and IBM with the goal of developing standards specifically for industrial use of the Internet of Things.
The IIC has yet to release any specifications, but a blog post published on June 30th announced Microsoft’s addition to the group and detailed the growing interest in the consortium since its launch in March.
Earl Perkins, a research vice president at Gartner’s Security and Privacy team, questioned whether the IIC was equipped to actually address the issues in the industrial use of the Internet of Things. In a post on his Gartner blog, he pointed out what many in the IoT market already know - the industrial world was using connected devices long before anyone was talking about the Internet of Things on social media. The formation of the IIC at a time when the Internet of Things had reached buzzword status was convenient, Perkins wrote.
What remains to be seen is whether the IIC was an attempt to increase awareness on this often overlooked IoT market, or if it will actually contribute to it.
“But my concern is for any consortium, no matter how big or how prestigious, trying to bite off literally more than it can chew,” Perkins wrote. “The only ‘real’ industrial partner in the consortium at this point is GE (and arguably perhaps AT&T). The rest are decidedly IT-centric, so the desire to make the [Industrial Internet of Things] more ‘inclusive’ is understandable. But there is plenty of opportunity on the industrial side without trying to make more of it than necessary.”
Amid the confusion, rumors have emerged claiming that the smartphone market’s two most dominant factions may turn their attention toward the IoT market.
The New York Times’s Bits blog post discussing on the OIC mentioned that “it appears that both Google and Apple, and possibly other companies, are out to create their own standards for the IoT as well,” as both companies have recently touted their mobile operating systems’ new features for controlling smart home appliances and fitness devices.
Google, of course, is less likely to reshape Android as an IoT system now that its Nest unit is heading up Thread. However, Android is likely to integrate with Thread in some way. It will be interesting to see how Android’s massive market share affects Thread’s adoption among developers and manufacturers.
Apple, meanwhile, is famously tightlipped about any new market it may enter. If nothing else, Apple will see even more rumors, and Apple could always use more of those.