Companies working on the Project for Connected Home over IP (CHIP), or what I like to think of as the grand unification standard for the smart home, expect certified consumer products by the end of next year, despite the potential delays wrought by the current global pandemic. The CHIP effort was launched in December by Apple, Google, and Amazon, which teamed up to propose an application layer that would enable smart home devices to work together easily, without requiring different custom integrations.
The launch was big, but it was short on details. The Zigbee Alliance, which oversees the CHIP standard, said a certification would be ready before the end of this year (I had heard from some members that we could expect it in the third quarter). But that was before COVID-19. So, this week I gamely sat through two webinars with the hope of figuring out if CHIP was delayed as well as how far along participants were in the development of a standard.
The first webinar was held by Thread Group, which certifies the Thread smart home networking protocol that aims to deliver smart home data over a low-power, IPV6-capable mesh network. Thread Group is excited because CHIP will deal with data at the application layer, and could do so using a Thread-based network. CHIP can send data over any IP network, which includes Thread, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. The Thread webinar was unsurprisingly all about how you could use CHIP over Thread.
The second webinar was hosted by chip company Silicon Labs, and the focus there was all about how Silicon Labs has lovely chips that will be able to handle the needs of a variety of networks and CHIP. I wasn’t expecting a lot of new information on these calls, but my expectations were still barely met.
I spent almost two hours listening in, only to determine that everyone on the calls was merely rehashing the same talking points from December. The unknowns back then are the same things we don’t know today, and participants are still sticking to a late 2020 or maybe early 2021 date for a standard. (The 2021 date represents a little bit of slip, but we are in the midst of a global pandemic, so I can’t fault that.)
Participants still didn’t have information on how the companies involved would handle issues like device onboarding and security. Nor did they know what would happen to smart home devices in homes today, and how they may or may not work within a CHIP ecosystem. Product manufacturers and developers on the call asked about what organization would handle certification, but the answer to that question was also vague.
I emailed the Zigbee Alliance to see if I could find out the expected launch date for the standard, what the certification process might look like, and how it is thinking about the way existing devices and future CHIP devices may or may not work together. An Alliance spokeswoman responded with an email saying that it is still working toward a draft specification in 2020, which didn’t answer my question of whether or not it expects it to be ready by that time.
The spokeswoman did say the Zigbee Alliance would handle the CHIP certification process, so that was one clear answer. As to how devices will work together (or not), she wrote: “In the initial Project CHIP announcement, Amazon, Apple, and Google expressed commitment to continue support for consumers and their existing products. The Project CHIP protocol will complement existing technologies and Working Group members encourage device manufacturers to continue innovating using technologies available today. ”
Which says to me that the companies working on CHIP know that backward compatibility will require anyone who has products in the marketplace to do the upgrades necessary to make the older products work well with the new ones, but won’t force them to do so. So if consumers want existing products to work with CHIP, then it’s up to consumers to put pressure on vendors to commit to a CHIP-related update and support for a set amount of time.
Broadly, I learned from the calls that the developers are eager for information on CHIP, but are also unsure if it represents a compelling step forward. Multiple people in the chatroom asked during the Q&A on both calls why we need CHIP. The most compelling rationale came from Stuart Cheshire at Apple. He said a standard such as CHIP, which creates an interoperable layer where smart home devices from different vendors can talk to one another, would help drive adoption.
Today’s smart home adopters are people who like DIY projects and fiddling around with technology. But if CHIP is a success, we’ll see adoption from builders that will make smart home devices part of every home build going forward. CHIP would provide certainty for an industry that has to think in terms of decades, not years, and it would substantially expand the market.
Cheshire is right, but the lack of communication on the project so far is a blow to my confidence in CHIP’s eventual success. I guess I’ll wait until 2021.