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.

MIT researchers claim they have a way to make faster chips

A team of MIT researchers have discovered a possible way to make multicore chips a whole lot faster than they currently are, according to a recently published research paper.

The researchers’ work involves the creation of a scheduling technique called CDCS, which refers to computation and data co-scheduling. This technique can distribute both data and computations throughout a chip in such a way that the researchers claim that in a 64-core chip, computational speeds saw a 46 percent increase while power consumption decreased by 36 percent. This boost in speed is important because multicore chips are becoming more prevalent in data centers and supercomputers as a way to increase performance.

The basic premise behind the new scheduling technique is that data has to be near the computation that uses it, and the best way to do so is with a combination of hardware and software that distributes both the data and computations throughout the chip more easily than before.

Although current techniques like nonuniform cache access (NUCA) — which basically involves storing cached data near the computations — have worked so far, these techniques don’t take in account the placement of the computations themselves.

The new research touts the use of an algorithm that optimally places the data and the compute together as opposed to only the data itself. This algorithm allows the researchers to anticipate where the data needs to be located.

“Now that the way to improve performance is to add more cores and move to larger-scale parallel systems, we’ve really seen that the key bottleneck is communication and memory accesses,” said MIT professor and author of the paper Daniel Sanchez in a statement. “A large part of what we did in the previous project was to place data close to computation. But what we’ve seen is that how you place that computation has a significant effect on how well you can place data nearby.”

While the CDCS-related hardware loaded on the chip accounts for 1 percent of the chip’s available space, the researchers believe that it’s worth it when it comes to the performance increase.

SmartThings joins Z-wave Alliance board

With the launch of the Thread radio protocol, I’ve already heard several people deride ZigBee and Z-wave as legacy standards for smart home networking, which petrifies me given that I have at least $2,000 invested in Z-wave gear. So I was excited to see SmartThings join the board of the Z-wave Alliance on Thursday morning, indicating that perhaps it’s time isn’t yet up. Other board members include ADT, Ingersoll-Rand, Jasco Products, LG Uplus, Nortek Security & Control, and Sigma Designs.

This week’s podcast unravels the secrets of Thread and HomeKit

 

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For those of you who love talking about radio protocols listen all the way through for our guest on this week’s podcast because Sujata Neidig, of the Thread Group and Freescale Semiconductor, doesn’t disappoint. She digs into the hardcore details about how the Thread protocol works after making a case for why the world needs another radio standard for connected devices. I learned a lot about the protocol and I imagine you will too.

Before that, more casual listeners may learn something as Kevin Tofel and I run down what we know and what has been reported on Apple’s HomeKit framework so far. I also lay out my cardinal rule of buying connected gadgets, which will come as no surprise to listeners but does mean that I won’t be buying some of the HomeKit-only devices out there. There’s a passing discussion of connected kitchen scales and robot snow plows, so enjoy the podcast, especially to our listeners stuck in the snow-packed wasteland of the Northeast.

Hosts: Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin Tofel
Guests: Sujata Neidig, VP of marketing for Thread Group and business development manager at Freescale Semiconductor

  • HomeKit, what we know, what we don’t and what we think.
  • A connected scale for novice bakers and Stacey’s cardinal rule for buying connected devices
  • Why we need a mesh, IP-connected radio protocol like Thread
  • Thread’s architecture in the home includes nodes, routers and border routers

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SmartThings’ next-generation hub will support Thread and the OIC

Samsung’s B.K. Yoon, the president of its Consumer Electronics group, gave an inspiring call to openness for the internet of things in a keynote speech at International CES on Monday night that also happened to contain a few tidbits of news about the SmartThings smart home platform that Samsung purchased last summer.

In a conversation last night with Alex Hawkinson, the CEO of SmartThings (shown above with the version 2 of the hub), I found a bit more about the next generation hub planned for April as well as the new premium service tier that will also be coming out in that time frame. I also learned that while the hub will support “legacy” standards like Z-wave and ZigBee while adding Bluetooth Smart, SmartThings is looking ahead to new standards and is planning to support Thread, the mesh-radio protocol that Nest and others have proposed as well as Intel’s Open Interconnect Consortium.

Hawkinson said that if the devices come, they would also support AllJoyn as well. But let’s focus on the hubs for a moment, because that’s what the die-hard smarthome folks are most interested in. First off, the second generation of the hub is about the same size, although square with rounded edges and heavier than the current hub. That’s because it has a set of batteries in there so when your power goes out your hub stays on.

There’s also room for a cellular USB stick if you wish, so you can also have backup internet (See correction note below). Hawkinson said it has always bothered him that given his reason for starting SmartThings — the flooding of his Colorado vacation home — the current version of the product wouldn’t have actually helped because the power was out. Now, the version two of his product would have actually helped.

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

That brings us to the premium service level announced. Hawkinson said that people wanted things that the infrastructure couldn’t provide without costing SmartThings money, such as video storage (the hub didn’t have video capability either, but the new one will) and alert escalation. So now when an alert happens, users can set up chains of contacts that can take a call or texts. If a child coming home from school doesn’t trigger an alert a parent might get a text and then a neighbor. If a leak is detected, maybe the escalation goes to a plumber.

This isn’t just a revenue opportunity in terms of charging the customer, it’s also a way to get service providers like HVAC repairmen, plumbers and others involved in the smarthome. Imagine if when you are setting up your SmartThings smarthome and you activate your water sensor and you get a list of local plumbers to call as part of the escalation service. If they get a call, SmartThings gets a referral fee.

It’s like AdWords for the real world. What if when you sign up for this, your home insurer gives you a discount? It might offset somewhat the fee that SmartThings charges. It might not. Hawkinson was mum on the fees for the new hub, the premium service and any other pricing.

Other things to note about the launch are that several new devices and products will be supported by SmartThings, such as Chamberlain garage doors, Honeywell Thermostats, Nest Thermostats, Philips Hue lights, Netgear products, August locks, the previously announced Samsung appliances and new apps for the Gear S and Samsung Smart TVs.

The app will get an update too with more suggested use cases while still letting people program crazy ideas if they want. The sensors will also shrink to about a third of their current size and we’ll see SmartThings eventually move to use Samsung’s Tizen OS according to SmartThings co-founder and CTO Jeff Hagins.

That last tidbit is especially interesting when you consider that Samsung said that Tizen would be the OS for all of its Smart TVs going forward, and that Yoon said that Samsung plans to eventually make every device it sells into a hub for the internet of things.

It sounds like Samsung may be trying to push Tizen as the OS for the internet of things after losing out on mobile to iOS and Android.

Correction: The original article stated that the version 2 SmartThings hub “has room for a SIM card” for backup connectivity. The article was updated at 3p.m. PT to correct that it does not have room for a SIM card, but a cellular USB stick can be used for backup cell connectivity.

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