The consumer IoT standards wars

On the same day during the second week in November both Bluetooth and Thread announced major updates and roadmaps for their respective network layer protocols. It’s unclear whether it was a mere coincidence, but what isn’t hard to believe is just how much the battle to become the dominant communications protocol in consumer IoT is drawing in every big IT player from Apple to Samsung to ARM.
To review, what’s going on here is that there are a number of competing protocols in consumer IoT. Bluetooth and Thread are just two. There’s also Apple’s HomeKit, which is really a made for iOS certification program, as well as Google’s newly announced Weave, IoTivity (backed by Intel) and the open source AllJoyn.
The protocols differ on many levels. Some of the differentiators include reported power characteristics, whether they enable true mesh networking, proprietary vs. open source, and IP requirements intrinsic to the alliances they’ve formed.
It’s obvious that not all will survive, though what may be less obvious to those backing each protocol is that the proliferation of certification programs and competing protocols will actually bring folks further away from the dreamed goal for the smarthome: true device to device interoperability that’s easy to enable. At least that’s true in the short term. If a dominant networking protocol emerges in the home, as WiFi did a decade ago, that protocol could really create a stable networking protocol that helps the overall market.
In terms of the news at hand, Bluetooth’s announcements were the most compelling. Their 2016 tech roadmap includes a 4 times longer range, mesh networking and double the speed without increasing power draw.
I’ve been slowly following the Bluetooth renaissance ever since the introduction of Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth LE solved a lot of the annoying pairing issues and power problems associated with previous versions of Bluetooth. And for those reasons I saw it popping up in a lot of novel but compelling consumer IoT products like connected bike locks, where easy syncing with a smartphone was needed.
In terms of the smart home, Bluetooth always had problems because it’s range has been limited and it’s not a mesh network, two requirements for a really robust smart home where data can seamlessly pass throughout the entire home. But that could all change in the future and the fact that Bluetooth chips are cheap and they are on everyone’s smart phone translates into a very large install base.
Thread’s announcement heralded the opening of its program for device certification, in the same vein as Apple’s HomeKit certification. Over 30 products and components have now been submitted to the consortium, which includes Samsung, Nest, Freescale, Silicon Labs, Qualcomm and others.
The Thread protocol runs atop 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low-power Wireless Personal Area Networks), and can work with existing 802.15.4 hardware wireless devices with a software update. 802.15.4 is the basis for ZigBee. One of the major reported advantages of Thread is that it’s mesh network works well and that it’s self healing. Imagine a home with 10 or 20 Thread enabled devices. If the battery dies on one, another communications point could be quickly found so that the flow of data continues. It’s fair to say that in terms of developing and focusing on a mesh networking capability, Thread has been ahead of the competition and has truly been a protocol designed for consumer IoT.
What’s at stake for all of these players exists on two levels. On one level they want to preserve their position in the market. Freescale, for example, already offers a pre-certified software stack for Thread and is expecting full certification for its microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors and communications options in the near future. If Thread gains traction, companies like Freescale want to be the go to vendors for pre certified components.
But the second layer of what’s at stake relates to the value of the overall market. In Bluetooth’s press release Bluetooth’s Toby Nixon made sure to reiterate that the IoT market potential could run as high as 11.1 trillion. I’ve honestly never seen a projection that high, despite the huge buzz around IoT, but there’s a different consideration here.
If that very large market is ever to materialize, a secure, mesh networked, large install base protocol will need to emerge. Much of the value of consumer IoT in places like the smart home revolves around consumers having positive experiences with products that work well with other smart home products. Point application products, be they a thermostat or a smart lock, have incrementally more value in the market if they play well with other smart home devices.
The first wave of successful smart home products have been point application products like the Sonos wireless speakers or the Nest thermostat. But the the future of the smart home will have to be bigger than that. It’ll have to be about a context aware, integrated experience where developers are given the power to figure out creative applications that leverage the hardware resources across multiple home devices and multiple sensor systems.
I don’t believe that we currently actually even understand the full potential of the smart home because we haven’t given developers a means to build apps atop all of the hardware in a home. And the sooner we settle on a robust protocol, the quicker we’ll get to that smart home vision.