Apple quietly added its name to wireless networking body Thread Group’s list of members this week. The move has spurred new speculation into future plans Apple may have for its smart home platform, HomeKit. But the addition also means the top three smart home ecosystem providers—Apple, Amazon and Google—are now members of Thread.
The news was first spotted by IHS analyst Lee Ratliff, who tweeted about the discovery earlier this week.
Thread Group was launched in 2014 by chipmaker ARM and Google’s Nest, which used the networking protocol in its thermostats. The organization is a not-for-profit body that has developed the Thread mesh networking communication standard for smart home devices. Thread is an IP-based wireless networking protocol that enables smart home devices placed throughout the home to create a low-power wireless mesh network. The technology doesn’t rely on the home network but instead enables devices—up to 250 device per home—to connect to one another, thereby extending the range of devices within a house.
Thread Group claims the standard, which is based on the 6LoWPAN protocol and uses IPv6 and IEEE 802.15.4, offers extremely low power consumption for devices, and “banking-class” encryption.
Thread currently competes with Zigbee, Bluetooth, Z-Wave and others. In 2016, Zigbee announced it would be collaborating with Thread Group to create an interoperable solution between the two standards. A handful of chipmakers also support the standard, including Qualcomm, NXP and others. Amazon’s R&D group Lab126, is also a member of Thread Group, but hasn’t adopted the technology yet in its suite of smart home products. Today, Google’s Nest is the only major hardware maker that uses Thread.
“Only a handful of other manufacturers use the standard today and their combined volume is a fraction of Nest,” Ratliff, who serves as IHS Markit’s senior principal analyst of connectivity & IoT, told FireceWirelessTech. “However, I think the activity on the surface does not accurately reflect what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Apple’s new interest in Thread might indicate the company will integrate the technology into HomeKit. “If they can be included in another major ecosystem, that would indicate that Thread is in a leading position in smart home connectivity,” Ratliff said. “So that’s what Apple’s membership would represent if they add Thread to HomeKit.”
Apple’s entry into the smart home space has been slow and uneven. It launched its HomeKit software back in 2014, and launched the iOS Home app two years later, in 2016. By then, both Amazon and Google had launched their respective smart home platforms, equipped with smart home speakers Amazon Echo and Google Home, which consumers use to orchestrate their smart home settings.
Apple only launched its smart home speaker HomePod in February 2018, four years after it launched HomeKit, and the company has been disappointed by the product’s performance so far. Consequently, consumer adoption of the platform has been slow. According to a Washington Post report, Apple has only sold 6% of smart speakers this year.
Apple has also closely guarded its HomeKit platform from outside developers. Initially, Apple set up a stringent certification process that required device makers to install Apple-specific MiFi chips into their would-be HomeKit-compatible devices for integration with Siri, a requirement which served to limit the number of compatible devices available to consumers. Apple has since dropped the hardware requirement, but still requires device makers to go through the MiFi certification and software authentication program in order to apply for HomeKit integration.
Like most of the smart home platforms, HomeKit relies on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth’s low energy protocol (BLE). But Ratliff noted that for battery-operated products that have sensors for detecting things such as smoke and air quality, occupancy or water levels, power-efficient wireless protocols are preferred.
“Apple may be expanding HomeKit to add native control of battery powered devices,” Ratliff said. “They can already do this via BLE, but it has limitations that they may be wanting to mitigate.”
Apple may also be considering launching their own line of smart home products. That would be “something they haven’t done at all so far, except for HomePod,” Ratfliff said. Or the company may be responding to pressure from licensee OEMs.
Whatever Apple is planning, the move to join Thread doesn’t necessarily mean Apple is opening up its smart home platform to outside developers.