A Guide to Internet of Things Radio Protocols
We’ve reached a key moment in the Internet of Things (IoT). Established communications protocols are being hurriedly adapted to meet the new requirements thrown up by IoT applications, and less-known protocols are on the verge of being swallowed whole by emerging giants.
WiFi and Bluetooth are familiar faces in the consumer electronics market. With nearly every smartphone containing both protocols, they are integral parts of the majority of consumer’s lives in developed economies – and are becoming increasingly important for consumers in emerging markets too.
Much less well-known are the likes of Z-Wave and ZigBee; rival mesh networking protocols that have been quietly competing in the emerging smart home markets, as well as the industrial markets – more so the case for ZigBee.
However, these protocols that are ideally suited for smart homes thanks to their low power consumption, but arrived on the scene well-ahead of any substantial demand for the smart home as a product or service – as the hardware was simply too expensive to exist as mass-market products. We are now standing at the tipping point where the smart home and its dozens or hundreds of connected devices will quickly become a mainstream offering – and both ZigBee and Z-Wave are threatened by the emergence of a new rival.
Thread is a low-power mesh network that is being promoted by Nest, the smart thermostat company that Google acquired back in January 2014 for $3.2bn. Nest went on to buy Dropcam ($555m, June 2014), for its IP security and home monitoring cameras, and Revolv’s 7-radio home hub (undisclosed price, October 2014), to substantially flesh-out what is a solid foundation for a complete smart home package.
Likely to be offered as the Android smart home (Android Home, Android Wear, Android Auto, etc.), Google’s interest in this market makes a lot of sense given the success of Android. Leveraging that market penetration to bring a hardware platform to market is a sensible business plan by itself – but one that is massively improved when Google’s software and services are thrown into the mix too, tying more and more users more stickily into the Google ecosystem.
In conjunction with the Works With Nest program, which certifies products that will work within the current Nest product ecosystem, Thread provides a way to add connectivity to new products to ensure interoperability, using fairly common 802.15.4 physical hardware and the Thread software stack – which threatens to erode or snatch ZigBee deployments thanks to its shared MAC and PHY layers, as well as the support for native IPv6.
Consequently, the Thread Group creates another influential industry group that is pushing its own vision of the IoT roadmap. With a members list that includes a number of very influential silicon companies (including ARM, Samsung, Freescale-NXP, and Atmel) as well as significant players in the home including Yale, Tyco, and Philips, there is a lot of potential clout to bring Thread to market (by force if needs be).
But we must wait and see how Thread decides to approach the market, especially as it is not the only industry organization that is developing software or protocols for the IoT. Also on the list are the Qualcomm-backed AllSeen Alliance and its AllJoyn device discovery and interaction framework, and a rival implementation from the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), which is pushing IoTivity in a very similar manner to AllSeen – to sit in between every link in the IoT connectivity chain, from lightbulb, to outlet, to home gateway.
A year ago, it looked like the IoT was in danger of breaking into several distinct camps, with businesses backing their chosen protocol and focusing development efforts exclusively on one. This fractured series of opposing camps would have come at the expense of the customers, who had previously been fed a vision of perfect interoperability and harmony.
Thankfully, the industry seems to have collectively moved away from this walled-garden approach, at least on the radio level, but there’s still not much in the way of clarity, and is still difficult to pick winners.
What we can point towards is evidence of a significant shift that’s due to occur in the coming quarters. This paper is here to guide you through the changing landscape, so that you can choose the right horse to back in this race for the IoT.
This is a tricky market to take a wide-view of, but it’s something that is worth doing. I hope that your journey through these IoT protocols is less bewildering than my initial travels through the industry. We hope the following information is useful for those wishing to enter the IoT, as well as those looking to invest or formulate new business plans.