Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) big announcement last week about Brillo and Weave was not particularly surprising. But like the Android ecosystem itself, one can't help but wonder if it's something that will start small and eventually grow into something very, very big.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a pretty messy place right now. Everyone wants to be that language that all the "things" use. The myriad of standards and protocols, advocacy groups and marketing endeavors are testament to that. While Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is honing its HomeKit, Google is fostering a new ecosystem of its own.
In his I/O keynote last week, Google's SVP of Products Sundar Pichai acknowledged that IoT possibilities go beyond the home, like a farmer using a smartphone to manage a farm or a smart city managing its public transportation system. "We see a range of possibilities and we think it's endless, but there are whole lot of challenges," he said.
But the home is as good a place as any to start. Google pulled in talent from its Nest, Android and Chrome teams to take a fundamentally new approach to the IoT. "We want to provide an end-to-end, complete solution" for the ecosystem, Pichai said.
Project Brillo, designed for the underlying operating system for the IoT, is derived from Android but is taken down a notch so it can run on devices with a minimum footprint. It has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy built in, and working with Nest, Google is adding support for alternative low power solutions like Thread. Because it's based on Android, it provides immediate scale so many device manufacturers can use it.
Weave is the communications layer by which things can talk to each other. "You need a common language, a shared understanding" so that devices can talk to each other, the cloud and the phone, Pichai said. With Google's schemas, a door lock can define "lock" and "unlock" as two phrases that all other devices can understand and work off each other.
"The powerful thing is Weave exposes developer APIs in a cross-platform way," so if you're writing a recipe application on your smartphone, the actual application can turn on your smart oven and set it to the right temperature. The oven can be voice-enabled as well.
It remains to be seen how Brillo, Weave and Thread will all work with current IoT standards like ZigBee. In April, the ZigBee Alliance and the Thread Group announced a collaboration to allow the ZigBee Cluster Library to run over Thread networks. The move represented one of the first steps toward interoperability in the fragmented IoT world.
Before we dismiss ZigBee as "that old technology" attached to millions of sensors and lights, it's worth noting that the Alliance in recent months has been making strides to dust itself off, so to speak, and spiff up for the big IoT train of today. ZigBee's been around for more than a decade and, full disclosure, I have acquired a certain degree of fondness for it. Maybe it's because it's been around for so long and I remember its early days. Or maybe it's because the ZigBee Alliance is a non-profit association with about 400 members. Sometimes these things are hard to explain.
At any rate, the technology has seen its share of struggles and tweaks, and now the Alliance is prepping for the rollout of ZigBee 3.0, which is supposed to unify and make the entire ecosystem easier to use. It has also hired a new VP of strategic alliances and a new VP of technology.
ZigBee 3.0 is going through the standards development work and the certification program is on track to go live early in the fourth quarter of this year, according to Victor Berrios, the new vice president of technology at ZigBee Alliance. At the time I talked with him last week, Google had not yet made its Brillo/Weave announcement. He said the Alliance was in the process of getting to better know the Thread Group and vice versa as a result of their collaboration announced in April.
ZigBee and Thread use the same IEEE 802.15.4 standard, so there's that. Thread's work is focused on the network layer, whereas the ZigBee Alliance works on the network layer and the application layers on top of that. "That's where all of our vertical standards are today," and that's basically what ZigBee 3.0 is – an application layer standard.
While Google courts developers to its Android-based IoT ecosystem, the ZigBee community also is interested in bringing in more of developers. It wants to help them better understand how well deployed ZigBee is and how easy it is to add to their products.
ZigBee doesn't have the brand-name going for it that Google and Apple do. It's better known through member brands like The Kroger Co., Comcast and Philips. But both the number of big-name companies and the volume of companies investing in ZigBee are on the rise. It has essentially doubled the number of ZigBee-certified products in the last two and a half years.
It will be interesting to see how Weave and Thread work together and where ZigBee fits into the overall picture. Brillo is going into developer review in the third quarter, and Weave's full stack will be ready to go by the end of the fourth quarter of 2015.
While IoT manufacturers and solution developers have plenty of other options, what could tip the scale in Google's favor is the integrated experience--it has Weave and Thread at the interoperability and communications layers and the parent Android at the phone/app layer, notes Phani Pandrangi, chief product officer at IoT platform vendor Kii.
"Both of these do have hurdles--there is still a lot of competition of the interoperability standards--and of course at the phone layer, iOS is a big force. If some of the consumer's devices expect Weave-based interoperability and others expect AllJoyn-based interoperability, well, there's a problem. I don't expect this to resolve quickly," Pandrangi told FierceWirelessTech.
That pretty much sums it up. Nothing is going to get resolved quickly in today's version of the Internet of Things, and if big players like Google and Apple end up fostering their own ecosystems without considering consumers' need for interoperability and simplicity, this is going to be a problem for the foreseeable future.--Monica