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On the road to find killer app for Thread

Posted: 22 Dec 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Silicon Labs  Thread  IoT  NXP  MCU 

The onset of wireless connectivity, as well as the limit-breaking pace of technological advancement, has the electronics industry struggling to find the answer for this seemingly auto-generated question: "What's the killer app?"

The killer app question is what many vendors, especially in the Internet of Things (IoT) market, have struggled to answer. This is largely because on the home front alone, IoT covers such a broad spectrum, ranging from door locks, thermostats, light bulbs and tablets to set-tops and smart TVs.

In a recent interview with EE Times, Skip Ashton, VP of software at Silicon Labs, said, "Yeah, I get that question a lot."

Quizzed about the killer app for Thread (an IP-based networking protocol for smart household devices), Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group, paused for a moment and answered, "It's a bit broad."

What makes Thread a killer is, he explained, "we can bring together a lot of different devices, put them together on the same network and have them talk one another."

Can you be more specific?

When pressed, Boross said, "You'll see the demonstration of many Thread devices, such as ceiling fans, thermostats and smoke detectors, connected on the same network, communicating on a show floor" at the CES in Las Vegas next month.

OK. Fair enough. See you at CES.

But wait.

These Thread devices you're showing at CES, although connected on the same mesh network using the same Thread networking protocols, can't actually send commands (to perform certain functions) to each other, unless they speak the same language, on the same application layer. Is that right?


Thread networking stack (Source: Silicon Labs)

So, which application layer will each of those Thread products, scheduled for unveiling at the CES, be using? Is each device deploying its own proprietary application layer?

"No, actually we've developed a simple, 'one-off' application layer for quick demonstration purposes," said Boross.

Half truth?

So, let me get this straight.

As Freescale, now NXP, more than 30 products have been submitted recently to Thread's certification programme. I know that 50 per cent of those products are using Freescale's pre-certified Thread protocol software stack, running on the company's MCUs or apps processors. The message was clear: Thread is making progress toward commercialisation.

Maybe so, but this is really only half correct.

Different types of Thread products connected on the same mesh network aren't actually doing much to one another if they don't share the same application layers.

This, in my mind, is the crux of the issue. There are just too many household devices at home. We haven't really nailed a single 'killer' used-case scenario for connected IoT devices that can convince everyone to want one.

Silicon Labs' Ashton disagrees. Consumers will use IoT devices for different reasons and different applications, he explained. "Why do people go to the Internet? The whole point of anyone going to the Web is because the Internet offers them so many different applications."

Given the variety of devices and applications, is IoT device fragmentation inevitable?

Not exactly, said Ashton.

"We've been fighting the home automation protocol war so long," he acknowledged. But the industry can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, according to Ashton.

"Thread has changed the conversation [around home automation]."

For example, Ashton said he is "no longer asked to write a white paper or a position paper on Thread vs. Z-Wave protocols, or Thread vs. Zigbee, because nobody can argue with IP," he said. The industry has coalesced around IP-based protocols.

That's the good news. But the bad news is, if your furnace and your thermostat at home don't share an application layer, they won't work together. "It's like you're dialing up someone in China. If you can't understand Chinese, you don't know what to do," said Ashton.

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