Thread is the Next Big Step in IoT

    I’ve been involved in the Internet of Things (IoT) decades before the term was created. In the 1970s, I got excited about X-10, the then-dominant technology for automating lights, and a mechanical record turntable that was both incredibly ambitious and incredibly unreliable (I bought one).

    Since then, we have had highly proprietary efforts like Echelon, which came out of the telecom industry and focused entirely on the enterprise, and multiple platform attempts like Insteon (which powers my home), and Zigbee. One worked better (Insteon), but lacked product depth. Zigbee had product depth but was also unreliable and lacked support. Both mostly focused on the home.

    We needed something like Wi-Fi Mesh for low-powered devices, and apparently, firms like Qualcomm, Apple, and Google agreed because the Thread Group  was born. They built on the ZigBee foundation but focused on the interconnect part, assuring that devices with little power can still communicate. The devices produced by Thread Group devices have battery life measured in years — typically two or three years.

    We finally have a foundation to build IoT on, which falls into the better-late-than-never category, given we started this process back in the 1970s.

    The Reason We Can’t Just Use Wi-Fi or XG

    Currently, two dominant wireless networks could be broadly used for IoT: Wi-Fi and LTE.  Both have considerable advantages in terms of maturity and security. But they both also have considerable negatives, including power requirements. These pros and cons make Wi-Fi and LTE acceptable for a hub connected to power, but unacceptable for a sensor that might be deployed in huge numbers or one that is remote from any power source.

    With IoT devices, local power isn’t a given; it is more the exception than the rule. Generally, with automation, the more sensors, the better because the controlling AI can make more granular decisions.  For instance, if you are cooling a factory, you don’t want to have to cool the entire building to keep one piece of equipment cool.  You want to direct air at that hot spot and focus on the cooling remedy precisely where the problem addresses the heat problem better and keeps electrical costs down.

    When done correctly, IoT is best used when tied to an adequate number of sensors, which are, in turn, networked to an intelligent control hub. Thread was jointly created by companies like Google, Apple, Qualcomm, Yale, ADT, and Eaton to address this specific problem. Like current Wi-Fi technology, it is capable of creating a network mesh where each device can act as a repeater for another device that is increasingly more remote.

    Limitations Of Thread

    While Thread is more energy-efficient than LTE or Wi-Fi, it has some significant limitations. The range is limited to around 100 yards or less if you are going through walls. It is also relatively high latency, particularly when compared to low-latency technologies like 5G, so it would be unacceptable for manufacturing equipment or remotely controlled robotics.

    However, you can use it as a blended solution using Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or cellular networks for the hub, which is then connected to the network of Thread sensors to complete the solution.

    Interesting Implementations

    Currently, Thread is on version 1.2, with the latest iteration providing an approximate 50% increase in battery life over version 1.1. This added battery life allows it to be used in places where other networking types don’t work, such as cattle ranches to instrument the cattle or clothing hangers to limit the amount of clothing in a store.

    The cow implantation keeps track of the cattle and gets near real-time notification if a cow is injured, sick, or strayed. The clothing example is even more impressive. In a high-end clothing store in France, they’ve put displays on the store’s hangers, so only one size needs to be displayed. The shopper can choose from a display on each hanger and have the specific version of the dress they want brought out.  This reduction in show floor volume better showcases each dress and makes it easier for a customer to find that perfect outfit more quickly. This capability also potentially reduces theft by notifying when a display dress is removed from a hanger and ensures clothing that might better fit the potential shoplifter remains secure in the back until a store employee retrieves it. I once worked undercover to catch shoplifters and the more stock that was out, the higher the risk of theft.

    Other possibilities are battery-operated panic switches for employees in hostile environments. It is a way to instrument pets in a large veterinarian office or instrument people waiting in line at a hospital, so you are immediately notified if one goes into distress. The sensors themselves can be relatively low cost and configured, much like the hanger example above, with a rich set of features.

    IoT is on Track with Thread

    The lack of a common multi-company standard for low-energy networking has been needed by the IoT market decades before we called it IoT.  Many vendors ranging from networking vendors like Qualcomm, platform vendors like Google, and solution vendors like Siemens and ADT have collectively come up with a solution.  That solution is Thread, which is a secure, low energy, high-latency solution for IoT devices that don’t have the luxury of wired power. Thread is what the market was waiting for; IoT’s future is suddenly a lot brighter with this new network protocol explicitly designed for it. 

    Rob Enderle
    Rob Enderle
    As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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