Just when it seemed as though the Internet of Things (IoT) might actually turn into the ever-dreaded Internet of Misfitting Things, along comes Thread. This latest attempt at a long-awaited (or long-dreaded, depending on your point of view) protocol to streamline the IoT, Thread—coming on the heels of many other stabs at a protocol, from WiFi to Zigbee to Z-Wave to Bluetooth, among others—should be coming, well, it’s more or less already here. (Much like the other protocols.) It just needs to be adhered to.
“What’s unique about Thread is that it is the only low-power secure IP-based networking technology that seamlessly integrates into existing cloud systems and enterprise networks, while supporting a wide range of application layers without the need for setting up and maintaining multiple physical networks,” says Sujata Neidig, the VP of marketing at Thread and the marketing director at NXP, the giant semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Eindhoven, Netherlands and Austin, Texas. NXP was one of the original members of the Thread Group that formed back in 2014 (along with Nest Labs of Google, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Silicon Labs, among several others). “In addition, Thread networks have no single point of failure, are low latency, and can auto-reconfigure when a device is added or removed.”
If that sounds like a mouthful, so’s Thread. As is all the technology that goes into an internet protocol (Thread’s as well), and in particular to an IoT protocol—the IoT being the world Bill Gates supposedly lives in and to which all of us should aspire: a world where Audis and espresso makers, washing machines and lamps, and pretty much anything electronic, anything with a chip in it, anything and everything that’s “smart,” can “talk” to each other, interact, exchange data, decide when it’s time to rouse you from your nap, or take care of certain chores you’d earlier tasked your devices to do (vacuum the living room, preheat the oven to 400°).
Thread, by all accounts and observations, is both much needed and should work fine. The somewhat underwhelming response to it, though, probably lies in the fact that it’s a top-down endeavor. Since its founding, all the Big Boys have gotten behind it—Amazon and Apple are now on board alongside Google. And it’s free, but one has to join to become a member, and like that old American Express ad, membership has its . . . obligations. In order to “implement, practice, and ship Thread technology and Thread Group specifications,” as stated on Open Thread, one has to enlist.
“What wireless technology should I use? Should I get this? Should I get that? It’s a question that seems to come up every couple months. Unfortunately, no one’s really had the answer,” says Shmuel Branover, a Brooklyn-based design engineer with a gift for taking on projects related to connected devices, “So you end up with what’s been going on the past few years: A bunch of different groups pushing their different protocols, which just becomes more of a challenge for everyone.”
When Branover works with clients, and it’s something true of the average consumer worldwide as well, people “just want a product that works with everything,” says Branover. “Everyone’s been nervous to pick a technology and run with it. But Thread’s actually a very attractive technology protocol. It seems to be the solution that’s coming.”
Whether that “coming” is a much-needed breeze of fresh air or the dreaded Winter that was always around the corner on Game of Thrones—that all probably depends on your techno-philosophical leanings. The resistance to join seems to hinge, one, on the feeling among the smaller operators that they’re going to get squeezed out. Maybe their size will expose them to more risk or added costs. This anxiety despite the fact that, in the world that is the IoT, more than 50% of innovations to come in this space are expected to come from smaller outfits.
The other concern, a bit more legit, has been over security. (Although, even the idea of security has been co-opted, in a sense: there are others who envision the IoT, and whatever protocol that’s set up to make it work more efficiently, as the makings of a future dystopia, where our smart devices become sentient, or if not sentient, the government, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, use AI and all our most benign-seeming devices to control us. Still others seem to idealize the IoT as the last frontier, a world of unbridled diversity—polymorphously so—and that any attempt to straitjacket it is sacrilege. As if the IoT were created by a bunch of anarchists—and not ARPANET.) But as many have pointed out, even before Thread, a standardized IoT protocol helps to avoid further fragmentation, thereby minimizing the risk of security threats.
And as the pandemic has shown, too, these reservations over security and adaptability have not really come to light; plus, the need for a more overarching protocol not only trumps many of the fears and prior resistance to a protocol like Thread, Thread seems to have proven already that it can handle the extra workload—and more specifically, that it can handle the change not just in how people work but where they’ve been working from. Namely, they’ve been working much less often—if at all—in the offices and buildings that were outfitted to meet certain specifications and much, much more out of their own homes. As pointed out by Jonny Evans in Computerworld this past January, “Home workers can quite literally experience better technology and applications in their personal lives than they do at work. . . . These systems aim to make it much easier to deploy smart home devices from multiple manufacturers using a variety of proprietary standards in a compatible way.”
And again, Neidvig, with another mouthful: “Because Thread uses the Internet’s open standard to create an IPv6-based mesh network [Ttc: IPv6 being the sixth Internet Protocol and most recent version of the Internet Protocol—“most recent” despite being drafted in 1998 as the updated protocol for the internet, but not ratified as its standard until mid-2017], Thread devices can integrate with larger IP networks and don’t need proprietary gateways or translators. This reduces infrastructure investment, complexity, and maintenance burdens, in addition to removing potential points of failure. Devices can be securely connected to the cloud, making it easier to control IoT products and systems from personal or administrative devices, such as mobile phones and tablets.”
“This is awesome for device makers and integrators like MagicCo,” says Ben Fisher, founder and CEO of MagicCo, the Voice AI consultancy, “since it makes the developing and production process easier for clients with physical products to integrate with Alexa, Google Home, and Home Kit. Jumbling all these protocols to date, and the design possibilities, has been challenging.”
It’s open source and it works, pretty much, like WiFi. And, as Branover says, it’s “agnostic.” Agnostic meaning that devices from different manufacturers will be able to work together, smoothly, securely, responsively. As Branover also points out, mesh could become a concern in Voice AI—if you have multiple devices throughout your house and they’re all sending the same command on multiple nodes; this could cause traffic management issues (on its network). But Fisher is a bit more optimistic. “Bluetooth in particular has limited range for the exploding number of devices in the home,” says Fisher, “and Bluetooth Mesh is a solution, too, but that has lower data-processing possibilities. So Thread is an advancement.”
As for privacy concerns, that may be an issue, but that’s an issue anyway and probably always will be. And not because it’s one specific to Thread or any other protocol, but because, well, that’s life. “And besides,” adds Branover, “Thread and these companies who are behind it, they’re not managing your data. They’ve just agreed, Let’s use this. The protocol, the IEEE radio protocol, they’re just supporting it. They’re not owning it.”
Even better, “The ultimate is Apple,” Branover says, almost with awe. “Their products are very seamless. If they say, We’re gonna team up with Thread, then you know it’ll work. And just generally, a unified standard is better.”