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ZigBee and Thread move closer to merger, haven’t pulled the trigger yet

This week, Thread and ZigBee have announced that the two low-power mesh networking IoT alliances have successfully carried out another test that shows how nicely the two protocols play together – so why haven’t they merged yet? We’ve already seen a momentous IoT standards consolidation in the OCF-AllSeen merger, and 2016 has already set a pretty high bar for bonkers news – so two standards group mergers really wouldn’t be so surprising.

The latest announcements from the two bodies are joint, and declare that members from both camps have carried out demonstrations of devices running ZigBee’s Universal Language (also known as the Cluster Library, which runs on top of the ZigBee Pro networking stack), and that the two organizations are on track to release a coordinated set of end-to-end product development solutions in 2017 for ZigBee-certified devices running on Thread networks.

In a similar fashion, the two groups have both announced separate liaison agreements with the Fairhair Alliance, which see them push to expand into commercial buildings from the more familiar consumer markets. There’s a lot of business logic that suggests such a move would makes sense – and we’re not just rampantly speculating here (although we are quite partial to a spot of that, on occasion). So it’s not exactly a bold prediction for the New Year, but it sounds like a safe one.

In terms of member overlap, at the top layer, there are three companies with fingers in both pies – namely Qualcomm, Samsung, and Somfy. Qualcomm and Samsung hold immense sway over the consumer electronics markets, especially in smartphones. Lower down the membership levels, there are many companies that crop up in both.

ZigBee’s promoter members are: Comcast, Huawei, Itron, Kroger, Landis+Gyr, Leedarson, Legrand, Midea, NXP (Qualcomm), Philips, Schneider Electric, Silicon Labs, SmartThings (Samsung), Somfy, Texas Instruments, and Wulian.

Thread’s sponsors are: ARM, Haiku (Big Ass Fans/Solutions), Nest (Google), NXP, Qualcomm, Osram, Samsung, Schneider Electric, Silicon Labs, Somfy, Tyco, and Yale.

As for the standards themselves, Thread needs ZigBee – or at least it needs the higher layers of the stack that it doesn’t currently standardize – namely the application layer. Sure, Thread could opt for other protocols to complete this function, perhaps Google’s new Weave campaign will draw its eye, but it’s worth noting that the IoTivity-AllJoyn project is only a small push away from potentially providing an application layer to sit under its higher-level framework and solving that problem for Thread (or encroaching on the likes of ZigBee, depending on your politics).

ZigBee and Thread share the same PHY and MAC layer, using IEEE 802.15.4, but Thread distinguishes itself by its native IPv6 (6LoWPAN) support – although ZigBee has moved towards adding this function, and there are many developers who argue that IPv6 is not really required for the kinds of devices that ZigBee is predominantly used in, something we tend to agree with (most end nodes don’t need a unique IP address as most are going to be hidden behind firewalls of some kind). In terms of standalone specs, ZigBee looks to be the complete solution currently.

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