Thread: The idea to save your connected home from Bluetooth

The tech behind Nest is for the benefit of everyone
The smart home's secret weapon

There is a big problem with the smart home and the internet of things, and that problem is Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi has been great up until this point. You hard-wire the world wide web into a box in your lounge and then that box, your router, beams out the signal over you coffee table and sofa and into any room that it can reach. Your laptop, your telly, your tablet and just about any other big ticket connected toy, with enough power to run a Wi-Fi-receiving antenna of its own, can catch hold of that and access whatever destinations and services you point it towards from the mundane to the sordid.

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That's fine when you're talking about a piece of kit with a big battery or access to the mains because Wi-Fi radios are a serious drain. The trouble is that the tens of door locks, window sensors, weighing scales and all the other things, upon whose shoulders we're looking to build our home automated existence, might only have space for a watch battery or a single AAA. What happens then?

The answer: you won't even notice, because there'll be a technology in the background that you'll never even have heard of making your smart home as seamless as a one piece silk slip. It's called Thread.

What is Thread?

"Thread is an IP-based mesh network, a little bit like your Wi-Fi. It's not a replacement for your Wi-Fi but it's about bringing that IP-based communication to devices that can't necessarily use Wi-Fi or rely on Wi-Fi," the President of the Thread Group, Chris Boross, tells us threatening to bamboozle with his very first words on what was supposed to be a gentle explainer introduction. He tries again.

"It's basically a wireless technology to allow point-to-point communication. So, you get devices talking to other devices and devices talking to your phone and to the internet throughout the home and doing so very securely in a robust manner with very reliable communication but also doing so at very low power."

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The rough translation is that it's about bringing the architecture of the internet to your home. Instead of your router working with tens of connected devices, Thread creates a web structure where every connected object in your home can talk more or less directly with one another. Just as the internet is a series of interconnected servers, your home becomes a series of interconnected smart bits and pieces, and that's the mesh. And, just as now with Wi-Fi, each of these devices has its own little unique IP address meaning that it's easily found when you're trying to access it remotely; that is, away from your home using the internet at large.

Like Wi-Fi, but better

With the Thread architecture, then, your smart home gets all of the benefits of Wi-Fi plus a little bit more. You can still switch things on and off wherever you are in the world plus the de-centralised structure means that you're not relying on a single point to supply the connection.

Other devices within the mesh can act as mini-Wi-Fi routers or extenders in their own right and pass on that wireless connection to rooms that might otherwise be hard to reach. So, there should be no more dropping off the network nor any intermittent weaker zones. Quality-wise, it's the equivalent of moving from having a coat hanger for an aerial on your telly to a mast on top of your chimney.

"Thread doesn't have a hub," confirms Boross, "and because it's a fully-distributed mesh network, with no single point of failure, it means that you get additional reliability and range in your home. Thread is made up of different kinds of devices, or nodes as we call them, and the more nodes you have in your home, the more your network is extended and the more reliable it becomes."

"Let's say that you have a bunch of connected light switches and a bunch of connected lightbulbs. You want them all on a single network and you want to be able to add to them over time. You install some and you use your app on your phone to put them all on a single network on your home and they can all talk to each other using Thread as the network technology to do that. You won't have to tell the devices, hey, you're an access point and you're a router, you won't even have to know that different devices have different roles."

Ultimately, what separates the devices on the mesh from whether they're a normal node or one that can act as a router is power. Bluetooth has been a good option for smart home devices up until now because, unlike Wi-Fi, it requires very low power. It won't motor through the resources of battery-operated thermostat, for example, in less than three days. The disadvantages of Bluetooth as the glue that binds the smart home together are that the range isn't fantastic, the pairing system is often infuriating and it offers no remote device access when you're outside of your house.

"There wasn't an existing technology out there that we felt was suitable for the next wave of products for the home," says Boross, himself an executive at Nest, as he explains the creation of the Thread Group from leading tech companies such as Google and Samsung.

"Many of those devices are going to be battery-powered or energy-harvesting. So, we wanted to enable battery-powered devices and energy-harvesting devices to do a good job in the network and for end users, but also to run for many years on a single battery or to sip power from solar energy and other sources like that."

"So, Thread put a lot of technology and testing into allow battery-powered devices to be part of a network but also asleep for the vast majority of the time, and that suits battery-powered devices very well."

Lower power, always on

It's these battery-powered devices that will be the more simple nodes on the mesh and those that are plugged into the mains that can serve as routers powering the information sharing from point to point. The theory, then, is that Thread is low power, far reaching, remotely accessible, robust and, finally, secure thanks to the built-in encryption of all the data that's passed back and forth. On paper, it all sounds simple but it's an idea that other standards have so far not managed to nail down.

ZigBee, for example, is a low-power, mesh network solution that's been trying to run a very similar home automation service to Thread for nearly 10 years now but it's hardly set the world alight. The difference could well lie in its end-usability. The technology behind it has certainly be deemed up to scratch by the Thread Group because the two have formed a partnership; extra and already existing device reach with now a far simpler set up to go with it.

"The intention of Thread is to absolutely avoid the need of a professional installer. The user shouldn't have to worry about how product A talks to product B. They should just magically work. I don't think there are that many users who want to get into the weeds of how a mesh network operates and how it's deployed in their house. That should be the job of the product manufacturers. There really isn't any network maintenance required in Thread for users either."

With those manufacturers in mind, a networking standard can live or die depending upon how well such end products actually manage to implement it. Thread will be going live with a programme to make sure that that's all done according to its own standards come September and it's from then that we might well start seeing smart light bulbs and the like with a Thread certification logo on the side although, as Boross agrees, in an ideal world, when Thread is everywhere and it works as promised, the end user might never need to know that the this wireless smart home standard even exists at all.

This Apple-like 'it just works' utopia may be just that, however. Technology standards are incredibly important to establish if you're looking for a new wave of device types to take off but they can be something of a victim of their own success. As more companies sign up, it becomes increasingly hard to manage. There's a greater number of voices in the room, which can both slow and dilute development, and larger batch of products to certify as up to scratch. Apple can get its technology to work because it only has itself to deal with at the top level and, when we put the question to Boross, well, his answer wasn't really worth printing.

For the time being, though, there's little debate about the direction that Thread's been moving. It's a clever and, now that someone else has thought of it, an obvious solution to a problem that could easily have mired the development of the kind smooth and successful smart home vision that the mass market might be willing to adopt. It has the capacity to make a difference and, while, not as headline-grabbing as Google's Brillo or Apple HomeKit, it's potentially far more important - even if reading this article is the last time you ever hear about it.

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