Today feels like the 1980s all over again. Much like the home media format war of that era, there’s a battle brewing between two low-power radio internet protocols for dominance of the internet of things (IoT).
This shift comes after years of trial and error to connect battery-based devices with Wi-Fi – the ubiquitous yet power-sucking internet access method preferred around the world. Now, thanks to the growth of smart home appliances that require an internet connection yet at a fraction of Wi-Fi’s performance and power, the market is finally embracing more efficient connection protocols.
However, it remains to be seen which protocol will triumph. Let’s take a look at the frontrunners – Thread and Bluetooth – and consider which will reign supreme in the connection showdown.
The connection challengers
It’s no secret that the market has long suffered from a plethora of IoT protocols and standards: from X10 and HomeKit, to LightwaveRF, Z-Wave, Weave, and Brillo. This depth of variety is also present in low-power protocols, a market segment where two standards are vying to become the connection king.
The first is Thread. Much like fellow low-power standard Zigbee, Thread is a self-healing mesh networking protocol, meaning that all of the devices on a single mesh can speak to each other. However, unlike Zigbee, Thread devices are IPv6 addressable to enable end-to-end routing and addressability on the same network or across networks. In short, Thread devices can communicate with other Thread devices regardless of who makes them.
The second is Bluetooth. As the name suggests, this protocol leverages Bluetooth low energy links to deliver a full-stack connectivity solution for mesh networking. This protocol is a scalable, short-range IoT technology that provides flexible and robust performance. The idea is that adding mesh networking to Bluetooth technology enables low-power sensors to communicate with the remote capillary gateways that can be implemented in any Bluetooth handset.
The points of difference
While these protocols are undoubtedly similar, there are important distinctions beneath the surface. First, let’s consider the connection possibilities of Thread and Bluetooth. Thread affords product developers and consumers the ability to easily and securely connect more than 250 devices into a low-power, wireless mesh network. This is certainly impressive – but pales in comparison to Bluetooth. With proper deployment and configuration of relevant parameters of the protocol stack, Bluetooth can support the operation of dense networks with potentially thousands of devices.
Second, let’s look at who backs which protocol. Thread and Bluetooth each count respective user groups that aim to see their protocol emerge as the industry de facto. For example, The Thread Group is a not-for-profit responsible for market education of all things Thread. Meanwhile, Bluetooth is backed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), an organization that oversees the development of overall Bluetooth standards, as well as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Despite these two groups carrying strong reputations and industry clout, Thread Group is the more successful of the two with its sole focus and large community.
This success is evident in our third and final point: manufacturers. Thread is winning this battle with significant buy-in from some of the biggest brands in the world. Google, Apple, LG, and Siemens are just some of the star-studded members of Thread Group that are experimenting with the technology. Case in point: Apple TV’s 4K set-top-box comes locked and loaded with Thread support for smart home builders.
And the winner is…
So far, Thread, but this fight is still too early to call. The home media format war took years to settle and the same could be true for low-power internet connection protocols. There are certainly pros and cons for Thread and Bluetooth – just like there were for VHS and Betamax – and it remains to be seen which protocol will earn user trust and market preference.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that major players are backing Thread. The likes of Apple and Google certainly have the power to sway market adoption and it will be interesting to see how this scenario shifts over the coming years. Likewise, though, Bluetooth technology is already installed on every smartphone and, therefore, counts a massive ecosystem ready to go. In this way, the protocol shows immense promise as a convenient connectivity gateway.
With no default protocol at this point, users will need to make their own decision and pick a team – Thread or Bluetooth. One suggestion for those in this predicament is to consider several factors, including the protocol’s wireless range, throughput, power consumption, scalability, security and ease of provisioning, and select that which best suits their use case. For now, only time will tell who takes the connection crown.
Carsten Rhod Gregersen is CEO and founder of Nabto, a P2P IoT connectivity provider that enables remote control of devices with secure end-to-end encryption.
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