Smart home

What is Thread? Everything to know about the smart home standard backed by Apple

Like Zigbee and Z-Wave, Thread is the next smart home standard you need to know about

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If you have already begun building your smart home, then you will likely have heard about Zigbee and Z-Wave. Like Wi-Fi, these are wireless communication standards that some smart home devices use to communicate with each other and with the wider world via the internet. But more recently there has become a third way for Internet-of-Things devices to communicate with one another, called Thread.

Although not yet as commonplace as Zigbee and Z-Wave, Thread has a lot of high-profile backers, in the form of Google, Eve and Apple.

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Thread was most recently cast into the spotlight when Apple included its technology with the HomePod Mini, and more recently the new Apple TV 4K. Although Apple hasn't said what it plans to use Thread for, it is significant to see the wireless communications standard on the spec sheets of these two products. We expect to see Thread appear on more Apple devices, like a replacement to the original HomePod smart speaker, soon.

What is Thread?

Thread imageThread is an alternative to Zigbee and Z-WaveThread

Instead of talking too much about what Apple may or may not do with Thread, we will focus on the technology itself. At its simplest, Thread is a low-power wireless standard for smart home devices to communicate with each other.

This communication is done directly, instead of being channeled via a hub (like the Philips Hue Bridge) or router, and Thread connections between multiple devices create a mesh network. Thread itself describes its technology as something that "solves the complexities of the IoT [internet of things], addressing challenges such as interoperability, security, power, and architecture requirements."

Because they form a mesh with multiple connections between up to 250 devices, Thread networks have no single point of failure and, the Thread Group says, have the ability to self-heal. What this means in reality is, if a device loses its connection, the network can route communications around it and carry on functioning with the remaining active devices. In a Thread mesh network, data (like an instruction from a switch to turn on) can hop multiple times between devices to get across the network from one to another.

For example, a Thread-compatible smart light bulb could maintain its connection to the internet via its connection to other nearby Thread devices, like switches, sensors or a smart speaker. Like Zigbee and Z-Wave, low latency means Thread devices respond more quickly than those connected using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Connected using Internet Protocol

Apple HomePod MiniThe HomePod Mini was Apple's first product to have Thread support Apple

Thread using the tried-and-tested IP (Internet Protocol) system, which is built using open, proven and secure standards. IP is also used by phones and routers, and is how devices communicate directly with each other, regardless of how they actually connect to the network (such as via Wi-Fi, 5G or LTE, for example).

By using IP, Thread systems can integrate with larger IP networks without the need for a proprietary gateway device. Thread explains how this "reduces infrastructure investment and complexity, removes potential points of failure and reduces maintenance burdens." As for security, Thread uses the same AES encryption as Zigbee and Z-Wave.

Although it is early days for Thread, with just a few devices compatible supporting it, smart home networks using Thread should respond more quickly and be more reliable with enhanced security and lower power consumption, compared to networks made up of devices connected to Wi-Fi routers or their own Zigbee or Z-Wave hubs and bridges.

Another key benefit is how Thread networks are interoperable, meaning they can be created (and joined) by devices from various manufacturers. For now that list of manufacturers is relatively small, but the Thread Group board includes Apple, Google and Qualcomm, and group members include those three plus Amazon, LG, Signify, Bosch, Eve, Ikea, Nanoleaf, Yale and Samsung. You can view a full list of Thread members here.

The Nest Hub Max smart displayThe Nest Hub Max smart display Google

Google's involvement with Thread extends to its Nest smart home division, where a combination of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Thread is used to help Nest devices talk to each other. One key benefit here is that the components of a Nest security system can stay connected to each other even if the home's Wi-Fi network goes down. The Nest Hub Max smart display also has Thread support, and we expect future Google and Nest devices to follow this trend.

While on the surface Thread is yet another wireless standard for users to cautiously welcome into the smart home, the involvement of big names like Apple, Google and Qualcomm means the technology has real potential. These firms have all made a relatively slow start, and the group has an uphill battle on its hands to educate customers on why Thread could be beneficial over Z-Wave and Zigbee. But we welcome Thread and are keen to see what will come next, both from the standard and from Thread Group members.

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