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9 January 2020

Ikea joins ZigBee Alliance board, maybe the latest hope for smart home unity

Ikea has joined the board of the Zigbee Alliance, and with its retail clout and growing smart home portfolio, the titan of home décor might just be able to whip the industry into shape – bludgeoning the crowd into submission on the back of the smart home’s sunk cost fallacy. However, we’re pretty sure we’ve written this story before, and that is quite telling.

It has always seemed obvious that there should be some sort of unification layer, which would let all manner of IoT devices interact with each other. For a time, it looked like this would be the AllSeen Alliance’s AllJoyn, or the OIC’s IoTivity. Those two groups then merged, and are now the OCF, but IoTivity still ticks along – without really doing much.

Then, Amazon stumbled upon a dominant position, and Google finally shipped a smart home hub, and it then appeared that the voice assistants would be the grand unifiers – linking everything in the cloud, as long as the device could get an Internet connection.

But still, we see the political allegiances between the two ecosystems preventing some devices from properly interacting with each other. In this dynamic, the power lies with Google and Amazon, as the great mediators that get to decide the fate of the market. Given their respective dominant positions in other markets, that’s not an entirely comfortable proposition for many with skin in this game.

So then, perhaps we are returning to the days when the wireless protocols themselves actually mattered. Before the OCF, there was the ongoing despite between Zigbee and Z-Wave, and had one of those won out, then we might have seen unification at the device level – with everything using the victor to connect to the smart home hubs that would act as the controllers.

But then the Nest-initiated Thread appeared, and Google’s proximity to it meant assuming that the titan would eventually do something productive with it. Instead, Thread has been in the lurch, announcing a swathe of integrations but not actually appearing in products to any great extent. That might be changing, as we recently outlined here.

Similarly, Bluetooth finally pushed out its mesh protocol, which further muddied the waters, as smartphones have always been a complicating factor. Because the handsets did not have a Zigbee or Z-Wave radio, there always needed to be a middleman between the phone and the other devices, but if these devices were all using Bluetooth, that would no longer be the case. Suddenly, Apple’s vision of the WiFi and Bluetooth smart home made a lot more sense.

And then the emergence of mesh WiFi offerings from the service providers led to a bit of a rethink on the need for these low power wireless protocols. They sprang to the fore because they enabled long range communication for battery-powered devices, hopping across nodes from one end of the house to the other. But they stemmed from the days when a home would only have had a single WiFi access point. Now, it is increasingly common to have two or more APs in a home, and with that, the need for this long-range hopping capability is eroded somewhat.

Piling on that concern is that the vision of what a smart home actually is has shifted in the past five years. When Rethink first started covering the topic, there was a consensus that there might be a few wireless sensors in each room, all providing the environmental data needed to inform a properly intelligent home. Now, we seem further from that vision than we did five years ago, with the smart home seemingly moving on from that architecture. We might get to that point in a couple of decades, but sensor-based startups have been packing up with record pace. Now is not the time.

So, we’re heading into 2020, and it’s not any clearer what topology the home is going to settle on. Will Amazon and Google start slinging Zigbee or Z-Wave in their mass market voice assistant boxes? Will Amazon commit to LoRa via its Sidewalk shenanigans? Could Apple finally make a serious play? Is Samsung every going to release the Galaxy Home, and could Bixby and SmartThings prove to be a savior?

What Ikea represents, in relation to these questions, is an outside force of sufficient size that it could begin to sway the market. Ikea has pushed for a cross-platform approach, being one of the most prominent HomeKit supporters because of this, and given its retail footprint, it could soon begin shifting enough units to alter the course of the smart home market.

To this end, it could start building ecosystems almost separate from the two dominant channels now, using the holiday-period pilgrimages to its stores to sell a vision of the smart home that doesn’t necessarily involve a voice assistant. That could make it a third kingdom, which is definitely a bad thing if it ends up on an island, but as it stands, Ikea is committed to the cross-platform approach. Its work with Sonos, however, could lead down the path of having its own voice platform, although Ikea does seem quite keen on the tactile feedback of its remotes and switches.

To add to the mix, Amazon, Apple, and Google have announced a new industry working group within the Zigbee Alliance, to develop a new open standard for smart home device connectivity, called Project Connected Home over IP (CHIP). This sounds like a rival approach to the OCF’s IoTivity framework, which is strange, given that the Zigbee Alliance and the OCF are on good terms.

The Thread Group was quick to respond to the news too. President Grant Erickson said: “The fact that the challenge of IoT market fragmentation has brought the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and others to collaborate on the solution speaks to the gravitas of the problem to date. Moreover, with this unprecedented collaboration, Project Connected Home over IP brings a powerful tailwind that will help usher in the next phase of growth for IoT.”

He added: “We at the Thread Group feel validated on two fronts. First, to create this unified app-layer protocol Project CHIP is taking the same IP-based approached Thread Group used, and second, they’ve designated Thread as a network layer for low power devices. We believe that this effort will confer tangible, meaningful benefits to both product manufacturers and consumers alike.  We look forward to seeing what true convergence can bring to the market.”

We asked the Thread Group if CHIP was just a new rival to the OCF approach, and spokesperson replied: “From our understanding, fundamentally, yes, it is. Currently, Weave, HomeKit, Dotdot and IoTivity are competitive technologies above IP. Project CHIP will result in Weave, HomeKit, and Dotdot merging, and the new unified app-layer protocol will be competitive with IoTivity above IP.”

If the Thread Group’s assertion is correct, then we would see some consolidation among the smart home efforts, which is certainly welcome – although there’s still a long way to go until we have just one or two complete approaches, if we ever get there at all.