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24 January 2020

OCF blindsided by CHIP, urges Zigbee not to reinvent the wheel

The launch of the Connected Home over IP (CHIP) working group, housed inside the Zigbee Alliance, caught us off guard. Formed by Amazon, Apple, Google, and Zigbee, the group wants to create an interoperability standard for smart home devices. However, it appears that the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) was also caught unawares, which is surprising, given that it has been plugging away at just such a standard for the past few years.

We spoke to the OCF’s President, David McCall, also a Senior Director at Intel, looking to get a more detailed view of the events leading up to the CHIP announcement. We put it to McCall that, from the outside, it looked like the OCF had been quite quiet in the past year or so, and that it seemed this could have been a deciding factor in the formation of CHIP.

McCall explained that the OCF found it needed to properly develop a device-to-cloud (D2C) implementation of its framework, as it had originally chosen to focus on device-to-device (D2D) and then cloud-to-cloud (C2C), but later found that companies wanted D2C capabilities. So, over the past eighteen months, the OCF has been developing the D2C and C2C parts, which McCall said was completed fairly quickly, thanks to the OCF system having been architected in a suitable manner from the outset.

This culminated in the CES demo, which had an LG app controlling a Samsung TV, demonstrating the C2C and C2D integrations. McCall stressed that if this was simply D2D, it would break often, leading to a poor user experience. To this end, McCall says that the OCF now has full coverage, and that lots of certified products will be shipping this year.

Of course, that roadmap will have been altered by the arrival of CHIP. We asked if McCall was expecting such an announcement, and while McCall said he knew something was coming, he did not know that it would be an OCF alternative. McCall said that they played their cards very close to their chests.

We asked how the OCF feels about having a new rival on the scene, and McCall responded that in part, the OCF wanted to congratulate CHIP, because it knows how tricky it is to put such a framework together. McCall did note that the OCF has had some very honest talks with the Zigbee Alliance, as the two have a liaison agreement, but stressed that getting Amazon, Apple, and Google as headline members is no small deal.

When pushed for information about the CHIP standard, McCall said it was hard to comment, as there weren’t any details yet. McCall said that he believes the CHIP members have now had their first official meeting, but said that if CHIP is anything like other organizations, that first meeting would have been largely administrative – choosing board and role members. However, McCall thinks the arrival of CHIP is encouraging, and the OCF agrees that IP is a foundational technology, and that it is sensible to not try and reinvent IP when it could be adapted for CHIP.

We then asked if there was any technological reason that CHIP could not use the OCF stack, and McCall said there was none. We speculated in the CHIP announcement that the new organization could simply fork OCF’s open source IoTivity stack, but an expansion of the Zigbee liaison to CHIP would likely provide better results in a joint effort.

McCall said the OCF has always maintained that it is better to collaborate than to compete, and overlaps in membership should help foster such an environment – as McCall seemed sure that OCF members inside the Zigbee Alliance would advocate for the reuse of IoTivity inside CHIP. He did note, however, that the Zigbee Alliance now looks like a holding company, fostering the Zigbee and CHIP projects – noting that for now, at least, they are separate.

On the topic of the surprise launch, we do think it is strange that CHIP apparently had no discussions with the OCF before launch, given that they seem to have such a significant overlap. McCall said that CHIP might be looking at higher level elements than OCF, which would give it room to expand without conflicting with the OCF focus, but he did say that any time a new group is formed with overlapping aims, there is the potential for market confusion.

This inevitably led to our asking if the OCF could or would merge inside CHIP, or vice versa. McCall said it was too early to say, and that anything was possible, adding that lots depends on the direction that CHIP travels in – before noting that scope creep was something to be wary of.

For now, the OCF is focused on ecosystem growth – the subject of the CES press event. McCall talked about how there are broadly two classes of smart home devices. The first is the device-to-hub-to-cloud approach, which are typically running Zigbee and Z-Wave and make use of a gateway in the home. McCall stressed that these are a minority.

Instead, that vast majority are using WiFi to connect to the home’s network, and then to a cloud service, and then back down to the user’s smartphone. Some manufacturers, McCall said, have managed to provide their services through a single app, but many still require multiple apps, which is not great. McCall said that reducing this number should be a priority.

Sustainability is another point of concern, with McCall saying that every additional C2C connection you create is extra work, to define and maintain, and this workload left the door open for the likes of Amazon and Google to act as integration services for the manufacturers.

However, McCall’s view is that these integration services have very loose definitions of an interface, and pointed to a particularly disappointing TV that could only be turned on or off via Alexa. Perhaps the most cynical attempt at being able to stick ‘Works with Alexa’ on the box, McCall said that such integrations are hardly useful, and that you would want much richer semantic understandings so that you could make full use of the TV’s capabilities – instead of being limited to the equivalent of just a single button on the whole remote control.

But the flipside is Apple, where the integrations are much richer but where the rest of the ecosystem is hamstrung by the speed that Apple works at. These trade-offs are perhaps why CHIP has sprung into being, said McCall, so that companies can spend their developer resources on creating consumer experiences rather than on the myriad integrations.

To round out our conversation, we floated our tin-foil-hat theory that CHIP is actually just an initiative to see how to monetize these smart home platforms. This drew laughter from McCall, who noted that in his experience in standards organizations, the moment you start talking about business models and revenues, the conversations gets shut down very quickly. With the involvement of Amazon, Apple, and Google, there is an immense antitrust opportunity, said McCall, so he honestly doubts that CHIP has nefarious intentions.