Nest Labs' thermostat. Nest has released a public version of Thread, the networking protocol that it uses to connect smart thermostats and other products. (Image courtesy of Nest Labs).

Nest, Feeling Lonely, Loosens Thread from Smart Thermometers

May 12, 2016
Nest Labs, a division of Google's parent company Alphabet, released a public version of Thread, a wireless standard it helped develop for smart household devices.

Nest Labs, the smart home division of Google parent Alphabet, is taking a page from the search engine’s playbook. Similar to how Google opened the Android operating system for mobile phones and tablets, Nest has uncorked a public version of Thread, a networking protocol that it helped develop to connect smart household devices.

Thread is built on the 802.15.4 wireless standard and Nest has claimed that the protocol’s security and low-power features make it better at connecting smart homes than other technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or ZigBee. Thread’s major feature is mesh networking, an approach for skipping wireless signals across different nodes in the network.

The public version of the protocol is known as OpenThread, and with the announcement Nest is aiming to rally more hardware and software developers around it. The benefit of opening the standard, according to a company statement, is that “manufacturers will have the option of using a proven networking technology rather than creating their own.”

Releasing the source code is an initial step toward making Thread a major platform for new household devices. Thread is already used to connect Nest’s thermostats and security cameras and Google’s OnHub router. Should other companies build devices with the standard, it could make it easier for them to interact with devices from other manufacturers. For example, a Nest thermostat could automatically turn on a Dyson connected fan on the same Thread network.

Introduced in 2014, Thread is one of the younger upstarts in Internet of Things standards. Only 30 products are waiting for certification from the Thread Group, the industry group that maintains the protocol, while other standards like EnOcean and Zigbee have certified hundreds and thousands of products.

Further complicating matters is that new standards are emerging not only for network protocols but also for application layers. And because there are few leading standards, not everyone is completely loyal to the ones they helped build. Samsung Electronics, one of the founders of the Thread Group, has been building its own application layer and cloud platform. Qualcomm, another member of the Thread Group, has also helped build rival application layers.

In theory, many different application layers can run on top of Thread, but all the competition within the industry has stifled the protocol's growth. Once most the competing application layers consolidate, as most analysts expect, Thread could turn into an enticing platform for the remaining standards. Naturally, new household devices running on Thread could connect with Nest products.

Nest Cam camera. (Image courtesy of Nest Labs).

Thread has worked directly with application layers from Nest Weave and ZigBee, which coincidentally uses same underlying wireless standard as Thread. On another front, Google is also developing a version of Android for smart home devices called Brillo, which will eventually be fused with Thread and Weave.

The announcement comes at an apparently difficult time for Nest. The company has been the subject of reports that it has missed sales targets and that staff members have left over internal quarrels about the business. Among those that left was Chris Boross, former president of the Thread Group and technical product marketing manager at Nest. Opening Thread to developers and engineers could help change the long-term fortunes at Nest, which Google purchased for $3.2 billion in 2014.

Thread released its open-source code a long time after rival protocols. These rivals, including the Allseen Alliance and the Open Connectivity Foundation, have long opened the reference code for their IoT standards. Meanwhile, networking juggernauts like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have tweaked their overall designs (Smart and HaLow, respectively) to better connect household devices.

Thread’s supporters, however, include several of the largest in silicon. ARM, Atmel, Dialog Semiconductor, Qualcomm Technologies, and Texas Instruments are developing Thread, which can also run on development kits from NXP Semiconductors and Silicon Labs. The Thread Group has more than 230 members, including Schneider Electric, Yale Security, and security company Tyco.

The initial version of OpenThread is being distributed on Github, an open-source code browsing website. Nest will also demonstrate the standard at Google I/O, the search company’s annual developer conference later this month. Nest also said that support for OpenThread would be available on its discussion forum and Stack Overflow.

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