The future of Google’s Thread for IoT in the home

TOKYO — Freescale Semiconductor is turning up the heat on Thread, a new low-power wireless protocol designed by a Google-led industry alliance to bring the Internet of Things into the home.

Freescale, one of the seven founding members of Thread Group, unveiled on Tuesday, Nov. 11, its own Thread beta development program. The company, which provides select developers with its Thread software and evaluation platform, is demonstrating the new development board at Electronica this week in Munich.

While the industry still awaits the release of the final Thread standard, Freescale’s move marks a milestone for Thread supporters, as the new wireless mesh protocol has now become something tangible for developers to wrap their hands around, rather than a spec on a PowerPoint presentation.

“Thread will augment WiFi by allowing connected devices at home to use a low-bandwidth, secure, wireless mesh network protocol,” Sujata Neidig, business development manager responsible for consumer markets at Freescale, told EE Times.

Thread interoperability on the network-level is now stable enough for Freescale to build its own implementation of the Thread protocol stack on top of the company’s MCUs and standalone radio chips, says Neidig.

Freescale’s Thread implementation is built on low-power Kinetis W series MCUs, integrating 2.4 GHz RF transceivers with ARM Cortex-M0+/M4 cores. The Thread beta development kit includes everything needed to evaluate and develop Thread-enabled products and to test them in a multi-node network environment, according to Freescale. Beta companies receive: Kinetis KW2x Tower boards, USB dongles, samples, and the Thread stack, which includes precompiled Thread libraries and demo application code.

Because Freescale offers a diversified product portfolio, “our customers can choose to build Thread simply on a standalone radio, or design different types of Thread products — routers or end-node products — by using different MCUs or application processors with a rich user interface,” says Neidig. That flexibility, necessary for a variety of Thread applications, “will be our differentiation.”

Clean sheet of paper
By natively carrying IP from the cloud to the end device, Thread is built on proven technologies such as IPv6 and 6LoWPAN. Its low-power wireless mesh network protocol runs on 802.15.4.

Michael Wolf, founder and chief analyst of NextMarket Insights, says Thread has the advantage of starting out as “a clean sheet of paper,” when compared to ZigBee, which many in the industry view “as a mess,” or Z-Wave, which is “practically controlled by one company.”

But the reality is that Thread is still “way behind,” he notes. Thread hasn’t even shipped any products yet.

Lee Ratliff, principal analyst, responsible for Connectivity at IHS, agrees. “The [Thread] standard is not released yet. I don’t expect to see any products with the Thread logo until at least mid-2015, maybe not until the Christmas season.”

On the other hand, Freescale’s beta development program could give an alternative path to those disappointed with ZigBee, says Wolf, because ZigBee and Thread are built on the same 802.15.4 radio. Freescale also offers a single radio chip supporting dual PAN with a diversity antenna, which allows customers to switch the networks.

Giving developers a platform and tools to build Thread will beat Thread’s time-to-market problem, both analysts believe.

Take, for example, Apple’s HomeKit, notes Wolf. When iDevices, a developer of the iGrill, announced this week that it had spent $10 million preparing for the Apple Homekit program, the move not only signaled the company’s substantial support behind HomeKit but also “it took some mystery out of HomeKit,” he says. The same thing could happen with Freescale’s new Thread program.

Is the third radio necessary?
Before Thread can become a real threat to any other wireless networking standards, however, Thread still needs to answer one nagging question: Is the third radio really necessary?

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