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Thread kicks off certification program

The Thread Group has announced that certification for its 802.15.4-based low-power mesh network protocol has begun. The smart-home focused group has seen 30 devices put forward so far, and Freescale Semiconductor has told us that its stack and hardware are powering over half of them. Qualifying products will receive clearance to use the Thread logo, in an attempt to create a brand that consumers will recognize and adopt.

Stacks from ARM, Freescale and Silicon Labs will be available at the end of the month, with Freescale, NXP and Silicon Labs all launching Thread-compatible chips for sale. At the alliance governance level, lighting company OSRAM has also come on board as a board member, joining ARM, Big Ass Fans, Freescale, Nest Labs, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, Silicon Labs, Somfy, Tyco, and Yale Security.

“Having already made the Thread 1.0 technical specification available to members under Thread’s RAND-RF (royalty-free) licensing terms, today we are taking another major step in bringing Thread certified products to market, and ensuring that they are tested for quality, security and interoperability” said Chris Boross, president, Thread Group. “This is great news for our 220 member companies, who are anxious to start using Thread in their products.”

Although those 30 products don’t sound like much, that number is pretty much on par with Apple’s HomeKit portfolio. Apple’s certification system centers around WiFi and Bluetooth, and also requires hardware-level security – which many blame for the slow rollout of a platform that looked set to arrive in the summer, accompanying the new Apple TV.

Similarly, Thread looked like the communications backbone that would power the Google-owned Nest platform – which we suspect will eventually morph into an Android smart-home-as-a-service offering, leveraging Google’s huge smartphone penetration (but admittedly painfully low ARPU). Google recently opened its Brillo OS and Weave API and software framework up to developers, but there’s no direct link between these software components and Thread itself – as Thread is treated the same as WiFi, BLE, or ZigBee, and isn’t granted any special privileges that might spur adoption. Google doesn’t seem to be pushing Thread on the market particularly hard.

The Thread Group was launched in July 2014, to develop a low-power smart home communications protocol that could be used to carry the low-bandwidth communications between sensors and actuators running on battery power. In the emerging smart home, there will be dozens (and soon enough hundreds) of battery-powered devices, and the consumer experience of hunting down flat devices and replacing batteries will quickly become nightmarish.

As such, the communications themselves need to use a minimal amount of power when transmitting, and be built in such a way that allows devices to stay in sleep states for as long as possible – as waking uses power. As long ranges are often a trade-off in low-power networks, the mesh architecture allows messages to travel from the network edge to the center even if there isn’t a direct line-of-sight connection – as a message can make multiple hops to its destination, passing through other devices that can relay the message.

Thread currently operates in the 2.4GHz ISM band, alongside ZigBee (a mesh protocol that uses the same radios as Thread, and therefore could be OTA upgraded to Thread), and the much more common Bluetooth, which is also due to release its own mesh networking implementation sometime early next year.

Freescale’s Thread software stack is already being used by Procter & Gamble’s consumer durables, and in Jabil’s Thread Border Router. Those two customers are using Freescale’s i.MX 6UltraLite ARM-based Cortex-A7 processor in combination with its Kinetis KW2x Cortex-M4 wireless microcontroller.

Freescale’s Emmanuel Sambuis, leader of the Microcontroller Portfolio, added that Freescale is currently running a beta program with 10 of its customers, and is monitoring ten new requests per week. He added that the first Thread products will being appearing in the first half of 2016, but couldn’t disclose what percentage of the total shipments would be using Freescale’s technology.

With three current players, Freescale could easily fall off from that initial claimed 50% stake, or conversely run away with an even greater share of the market – it’s too early to call reliably. Sambuis did note that Freescale wants to expand via partnerships, and is in conversations with both hardware and software companies, exploring the possibilities.

He also noted that Freescale remains confident in Thread’s performance in the sub-GHz ISM bands, even though the alliance remains focused on the 2.4GHz band for now. The company demonstrated Thread at sub-GHz back in June, and Sujana Neidig, Freescale’s Americas Business Development Manager and the Thread Group’s VP Marketing, said that the issue was one for the Use Case Committee – something that would be supported if enough members pushed for its inclusion. Utlimately, the Thread Group board has the final say.

NXP has also unveiled its Thread platform running on ARM’s mbed OS. Using NXP’s new JN5179 wireless microcontroller, powered by a Cortex-M3 CPU, the 2.4GHz platform supports both ZigBee 3.0 and Thread. The JN5179 is available for sampling now, and NXP says the modules will be available early next year.

“With NXP’s Thread Platform running the ARM mbed OS, developers now have a clear route through the complex protocol and software development challenges inherent in IoT applications,” said Zach Shelby, VP Marketing for ARM’s IoT business. “Companies involved in the design and specification of IoT products need to forge strong ties with ARM partners such as NXP at the start of every project to ensure an optimized, seamless, secure experience for end users.”

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