Last week, Thread Group announced version 1.2 of its eponymous wireless protocol, and with it comes an about-face on how we should be thinking about the standard. Thread was created in 2014 by engineers at Nest, Samsung, ARM, and more to address the needs of the smart home. In its initial version, it used the same underlying radio as Zigbee and was a mesh protocol like Zigbee and Z-Wave, but could “speak” directly to IP networks and the overall internet as opposed to going through a gateway.
Like Bluetooth Low Energy and the other “z” protocols, Thread was low power. The goal was to build a superstar protocol for connecting devices in the smart home. However, five years later the smart home seems to be heading in a different direction, where it is less reliant on interoperable devices and more reliant on ecosystems such as Google, Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s HomeKit. But Thread is getting a second chance.
Thread 1.2 is that second chance. Grant Erickson, president of Thread Group, says its members have been working on the protocol for the last three years. The biggest change is that now Thread is ready for the enterprise.
As part of the standard’s new version, Thread Group has introduced commercial extensions that make it easier to manage a large number of devices on a corporate network. There are three elements here. The first is that network admins can combine multiple physical networks into one virtual network. A Thread network tops out at about 350 nodes, which is fine for the home, but is not awesome for an office building or campus.
Now an administrator can address multiple physical Thread networks as a single network, which means more nodes. The network doesn’t just get larger; there are more tools that administrators can use to manage access to and provisioning of devices. In a home, I might press a button or scan a QR code to connect a Thread device to my network, but asking someone to do that for the hundreds of light bulbs in an office is a nonstarter.
This is where the next two big elements come in. Thread now supports provisioning over Bluetooth, which a no-touch way to add nodes; it also supports IP-based commissioning or decommissioning. Daniel Moneta, co-founder of MMB Network, which helps set up IoT networks, says that interest in Thread is coming from enterprise clients. They value the fact that Thread can connect seamlessly with an IP network, which is exactly what corporate clients already have set up.
Siemens, Osram, and other big-name lighting and HVAC companies joined the Thread board a while back in order to help write this version of the standard, so I expect we’ll see both products and deployments from them in the next year.
The jump from smart home tech to commercial tech is one that Bluetooth is also trying to make with the new Bluetooth Mesh standard. The challenge with it so far is the number of nodes and a lack of tools to link a Bluetooth mesh network back to existing IP tools and gear. But Bluetooth’s presence on phones makes it hard to beat.
And it’s possible Thread won’t have to beat Bluetooth. It might end up working well with it, which means use cases such as asset tracking might be Bluetooth-based, while lighting and HVAC systems are on Thread. The reason the two technologies might be able to work well together is because as part of the latest version of Thread, it is adding the capability to bring Bluetooth devices into a Thread network.
That means any existing Bluetooth device could communicate with a device that has both a Thread and Bluetooth radio, which bridges Bluetooth devices over to the IP-capable Thread network and offers a bunch of cool use cases. For example, a Bluetooth radio in an occupancy sensor or even an employee’s smartphone could communicate with the Thread lighting system to turn on lights or dim them as needed.
Ultimately, both Thread and Bluetooth gaining ground in the enterprise is good news because up until this point buildings have been full of proprietary protocols that make it difficult to build new applications on. Thread so far hasn’t achieved that promise in the smart home, but now it has a second chance.
For more on this story, including the news of Lutron joining Thread Group’s board, check out my Internet of Things podcast.