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28 July 2016

Thread looks to get back on track with OCF interop partnership

The Thread Group and the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF – formerly the Open Interconnect Consortium), have announced an interoperability partnership that sees the two groups promise to advance the adoption of connected home products – which is good news given the slow pace of Thread certification.

This is an expansion from Thread’s current reliance on ZigBee, which Thread had previously vaunted for the application layer processes that are missing from the Thread protocol. By moving towards the OCF, Thread is definitely giving itself another option for the higher layers of the OSI stack. A joint roadmap was announced in May, that should see a ZigBee-Thread test and certification program launched in Q3 of this year. The Thread Group also announced in May that it was collaborating with the Connected Lighting Alliance (TCLA) to work on a protocol for indoor professional lighting applications.

Nonetheless, the addition of the OCF’s IoTivity to Thread is pretty big news. IoTivity is the open source implementation of the OCF’s specification, which is a device discovery and management protocol that sits above the networking layers – meaning that it doesn’t care which radio protocol is carrying the messages inside the smart home.

IoTivity allows smart home devices to discover other devices in their proximity, and then provides the software framework that would allow a hub to control connected lights, a door bell to trigger an action on the TV, or allow the HVAC system to poll environmental sensors for temperature updates.

The two groups say that the partnership will ensure that Thread slots in perfectly under IoTivity in the OSI stack, which means that Thread developers that have opted for the IPv6-ready, 802.15.4-based mesh protocol will be able to easily slide into an IoTivity ecosystem.

Thread Group members identified and prioritized OCF as a strategically important application layer to run over the Thread wireless mesh network,” said the Thread Group’s recently appointed president, Grant Erickson. “In order for consumers to put their faith in the connected home, their experience must be simple, reliable, and effortless. This agreement takes us one step closer to our common goal of ensuring that consumers will have smart home devices that seamlessly work together out of the box, regardless of their brand or function.”

But the OCF isn’t the only group aiming to create and IoT interoperability framework. Its direct rival is the Qualcomm-founded AllSeen Alliance, and its AllJoyn protocol, which has seen some market success, mostly inside Qualcomm Atheros WiFi chips (with a larger presence in home audio devices).

There have been calls for the OCF and the AllSeen Alliance to work more closely, and certain sources have noted that the two groups have at least floated the idea of merging. Both groups are now housed inside the Linux Foundation, which might make a consolidation easier, but as it stands, there are two standards vying for the role of arch-framework in the consumer IoT. Notably, when the OIC relaunched as the OCF, Qualcomm joined the board.

Thread certification was launched in November 2015, with over 30 products initially submitted for approval. The Thread website doesn’t have an update on that number, and there certainly hasn’t been a storm of press releases announcing the launch of Thread-enabled smart home kit. As the Google-owned Nest has been the driving force of the Thread Group, its recent turmoil might have led to some behind-the-scenes slowdown in the alliance.