ZigBee, Z-Wave Respond: Thread for Home Automation ‘Cheerfully Oblivious’

Z-Wave Alliance says Thread is “cheerfully oblivious” to existing smart home technologies … and other responses to the new connected-home initiative led by Nest.


Not surprisingly, soon after I posted the rosy piece about Nest and friends launching yet another “standard” for home automation, called Thread, comments started pouring in from other standards bodies, manufacturers, retailers and general cynics.

One dealer-turned-manufacturer sent me an illustration of the Tower of Babel.

A smart-home retailer remarked, “Sorry, but I don’t share your enthusiasm. Creating new wireless standards is likely to create more problems than it solves and the news that both Apple and Google are backing different standards is not good for the market.”

Still others were delighted (like myself) to see a mesh network and low-power communications for IPv6. Thread, founded by Nest, Yale, Big Ass Fans and chip-makers ARM, Freescale, Samsung and Silicon Labs, is based on 6LoWPAN, a networking technology that delivers IP over low-power 802.15.4 – the same radios used for ZigBee.

One buzz-worthy new home automation vendor tells me they’ll embrace Thread.

But the jaded vets who have been doing this for decades generally agree with this industry guy: “It seems to me to be just another attempt at a group to impose their will or agenda on the industry.  Their solution is no better (or no worse) than the others out there.”

I’ll briefly rehash my optimism for Thread here:

  • IP
  • Mesh
  • Low power
  • Existing 802.15.4 hardware
  • Millions of units already deployed (Nest Weave-enabled thermostats and smoke/CO detectors)
  • People seem to want to hitch their wagons to Nest, for whatever reason

To be sure, it’s an odd and very short list of CE manufacturers – smart-home neophyte Big Ass Fans? – to be founding the Thread Group.

There’s also the seriously major issue of who will be writing the applications and device profiles for Thread, which only defines the networking layer of a home-control stack.

“The communications protocol isn’t the hardest part of creating home control solutions,” Z-Wave Alliance chairman Mark Walters tells CE Pro. “The hardest part is getting enough companies to share common device profiles or models—more than one in each product type—so there is true cross manufacturer product-level interoperability.”


I just happen to believe that work will get done with Thread.

ZigBee, Z-Wave Respond

The organizations that have done the most work around home automation in the past decade – ZigBee and Z-Wave – have a few things to say about Thread. Each reached out to CE Pro to air their responses.

Z-Wave wins for this comment: They’re happy about the enthusiasm for the connected home but “we’re less impressed with a ‘new’ technology that’s cheerfully oblivious to a market of tens of millions of existing smart products controlling homes, businesses and industries worldwide.”

Kind of reminds me of a newspaper article I just read (I can’t bear to link to it) about Xfinity Home, a ridiculously modest system that apparently “offer[s] a glimpse into the approaching future of home automation.”

Here, without editing, are the responses from the Z-Wave and ZigBee Alliances. ZigBee’s comments are predictably tame. Z-Wave fires a livelier salvo.

We in the Z-Wave Alliance appreciated your recent enthusiasm for Thread, and enjoyed seeing Z-Wave as the benchmark for that enthusiasm. We share everyone’s excitement for growth in our space, but we’re less impressed with a “new” technology that’s cheerfully oblivious to a market of tens of millions of existing smart products controlling homes, businesses and industries worldwide.

In Thread, we’re presented with yet another protocol flavor on top of 802.15.4. Yet more traffic congestion at 2.4GHz, not to mention the attendant power drain, which Thread has helpfully “gone to great lengths to minimize.” More optimal frequencies, such as the 900 MHz band that Z-Wave uses, don’t require great lengths to reduce drain, which is a key real-world problem. As you know, Z-Wave leads the industry in power consumption efficiency, one of the many benefits of having been built from the ground up specifically for control and status applications.

I’m sure the Thread communications protocol will be solid and work well.  From the perspectives of bandwidth and cost, as well as power budget, it does seem like overkill. By the way, we took your editorial side note of Z-Wave having “super-low bandwidth” as a compliment; it’s another advantage of having been designed expressly for home control. The current 500 series Z-Wave chips have 100 kbps; more than enough to reliably and efficiently run an extensive mesh network. Thread’s bandwidth is roughly double, but for what practical benefit besides sounding better on a spec sheet or brochure?

For all that, the communications protocol isn’t the hardest part of creating home control solutions.  The hardest part is getting enough companies to share common device profiles or models—more than one in each product type—so there is true cross manufacturer product-level interoperability; in short, choice.  Z-Wave has been able to provide this. It has taken ten years and a singular mind set to pull it off.  ZigBee has tried to offer this—through its 4 specifications and 14 standards—but has only required communications level interoperability. Product-level interoperability remains optional there, and to date, there are only a few products types where you can find multiple industry leaders with interoperable products.  How Thread will address this upper-level interoperability question, if they deign to, only time will tell. 

Of all the new smart device and IoT consortia, ecosystems and standards, such as AllJoyn, AllSeen, OIC, HomeKit, IEEE1905 and others, Thread is the only one to start fresh with a new communications technology.  All the others are sensibly inclusive of existing solutions, such as those based on Z-Wave, not to mention ZigBee and others.

“There’s a hubris to the Thread approach that seems characteristically Google.”

Z-Wave Alliance

Lastly, the inference that existing 802.15.4 based products in the market can be converted to Thread is intriguing, to say the least. If the ZigBee guys couldn’t move from SEP1 to SEP2 in the field, how is Thread going to move from ZigBee or some other protocol stack on 802.15.4 to Thread’s 6LoWPAN version?  We’re naturally excited to see this unfold. 

Z-Wave is excited to see the home control industry and market explode, and marvel at some of the prices being paid for recent acquisitions in our space.  Some of these shiny objects, particularly those new to the market, will last, while most will eventually fade away.  There’s a hubris to the Thread approach that seems characteristically Google. We’ve seen what kind of job they’ve been able to do in our space will this be any different?

Z-Wave is in this for the long haul, with over 1100 certified products, over 300 companies supporting the standard, 10 years of market experience, and a track record of over 25 million devices and over 6 million homes deployed. We’re meeting the requirements of today’s market and tomorrow’s.   

The ZigBee Alliance is closely reviewing the details of this announcement.  Thread appears different from ZigBee, which addresses both the network and application level necessary for success in the IoT device market and has led ZigBee to be deployed in tens of millions of devices around the world. Thread does not seem to provide the higher-level standardization to ensure interoperability between devices.

Thread is the latest in the recent influx of many announcements and initiatives, as more and more companies recognize the growing demand for the Internet of Things and are interested in playing a role in this very exciting market.  The ZigBee Alliance will evaluate Thread and its impact as well as the opportunity for the market and our members; we have a long history of collaboration with other organizations that provide specific solutions for a particular market segment.  We look forward to the potential of working with this organization, noting that five of the seven Thread Group founding companies are members of the ZigBee Alliance who understand ZigBee’s pivotal role in developing the IoT market. This connection makes it that much more likely to develop a path for collaboration.

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson


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