Thread and ZigBee snap pieces together to boost home IoT

The companies will make ZigBee's application layer work with Thread low-power mesh networks

The Thread Group and the ZigBee Alliance plan to make their technologies work together in connected home products, which could help bring more order to the Internet of Things.

The organizations announced on Thursday they are collaborating to make a ZigBee application layer run over Thread networks. Specifically, ZCL [ZigBee Cluster Library], an application layer used in ZigBee products, will be able to work with Thread's mesh networking protocol. ZCL defines how connected devices such as lightbulbs and thermostats tell each other what they are and what they can do.

Many different application layers can run on top of Thread, and the partnership isn't exclusive for either party. But the combined technology might become an attractive package for streamlined development of home IoT products. That's what the organizations hope, anyway.

Consumers have more connected-home products than ever to choose from, but the technology is often so complicated that only tech enthusiasts buy it. The gear needs to become simpler and easier to use, but there are so many standards in play that streamlining a user's experience can be hard to do. Thread and ZigBee hope to make the market less fragmented.

The two groups have been talking about a partnership for a long time, said Chris Boross, who is president of Thread Group and technical product marketing manager at Google's Nest division. How they will brand products that use both the technologies has yet to be determined, he said.

Thread is a networking protocol for making devices with low-power, short-range radios automatically form a mesh network that can span an entire home. The idea is to let various devices interact with each other, such as having a Thread-enabled thermostat automatically turn on a connected fan.

Thread doesn't define anything beyond that mesh network, so the Thread Group has always planned to work with other industry groups and standards bodies for the upper layers of software that define how the network is used, Boross said.

ZigBee is a networking protocol that's been used in home and industrial products for a few years. It uses the same underlying standard as Thread, called IEEE 802.15.4, which gives both access to commercially produced chips.

ZCL is already used in products for ZigBee networks, and vendors can keep using that combination, said Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance. Vendors will be able to decide over time whether they prefer to use Thread or ZigBee as the underlying network protocol, Richardson said.

Partnering with Thread is a smart move for the ZigBee Alliance, said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy. The market for ZigBee devices hasn't been able to grow beyond hobbyists and early adopters of technology, and Thread has the kind of backing required to take home IoT into the mass market, Moorhead said.

Thread was founded last year by vendors including Google, Samsung Electronics and Arm Holdings and has since added Huawei Technologies, Whirlpool, Philips and other big names. It has more than 80 members.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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