The Push for Interoperability
What will it take to better unite the Internet of Things?
The dream of a connected space in which everything comes to life at the touch of a button is—let’s face it—a lot rosier than the reality. For example, a smart home system that covers lighting, alarms, switches, sensors, and thermostat sounds great, but to have all of those elements come together and effectively operate under one home wireless network without a hitch of cost, energy expenditure, privacy concerns, or sheer logistics, is another story.
Moreover, smart systems need smart standards. With new technologies come new risks, and although the standards landscape for smart appliances and systems is still developing, the proper protocols must be established as soon as possible. Ideally, these standards would be streamlined across all companies to ensure that all emerging appliances and systems are not just easy to install and implement, but also energy efficient, adaptable, interoperable, and invulnerable to potential cyber-attacks that would compromise users’ privacy and security.
The ZigBee Alliance is one organization that is working toward optimum connectivity, energy efficiency, security, and interoperability of devices for wireless home and business systems through the development of a global set of standards. Established in 2002, the open, non-profit association includes, among more than 425 other members, companies like Lowe’s, SmartThings, Texas Instruments, and the silicon and software solutions company Silicon Labs.
For this article, appliance DESIGN spoke to Mark Walters, vice president of strategic development for ZigBee Alliance, and Skip Ashton, vice president of software engineering at Silicon Labs, about how the mechanisms and ideas behind smart appliances and connected home and business systems are continuing to evolve.
Understanding the marketplace
Mark Walters, ZigBee Alliance: “Over the past 12 years, the ZigBee Alliance has introduced several standards into the industry. We had a very specific set of applications for home automation, another set specifically designed for lighting, and another set specifically designed for intelligent buildings. This was something that we thought the market wanted, and we felt it made the approach for developers to the market simpler. We were wrong.
What we used to do was create something called a ‘cluster.’ A cluster is a behavior like ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off.’ Then we took all of these clusters, put them together, and made a device, such as a light dimmer, or an electrical meter. And then we put these devices into little application silos, meaning some devices belonged to home automation, others to energy, and others to smart buildings. And they didn’t work together. That was our big ‘oops,’ and really turned out to not be the smartest thing. We’re somewhat undoing the work of that era with our new initiative called Zigbee 3.0. What we’re doing with 3.0 is we’re saying, let’s take every device behavior, every cluster we can ever imagine, and let’s put them on one network standard, so that any developer, regardless of what market they are trying to address, has access to all of the device behaviors and all of the device restrictions that have ever been in the ZigBee Alliance. And we think that’s very important for the Internet of Things because the Internet of Things is just that. It’s not the Internet of Things that’s in your home, separate from the Internet of Things that’s in your office. And that’s what 3.0 is all about.”
Walters: “The interesting thing for us is that we’re seeing tremendous growth in China and other parts of Asia. We’re seeing whole new markets opening up, and these markets are almost equally spread across smart homes, smart buildings, and smart cities.
In terms of new devices types that were not connected before, it’s pretty much been the case that anything and everything that might want to communicate can now be added to a network, connected to the Internet, and then managed by your smart phone. We’re seeing a lot of new members coming in with devices that were not traditionally thought of as being smart home or smart building-related before, such as water detection devices for leaky pipes. Home automation used to be all about turning the lights on and off, turning the shades up and down, and turning the TV on and off; and now it’s about comfort, safety, and security, protecting your loved ones and protecting your property. So we’re seeing new companies, new members, coming in that are specializing in products that benefit from being connected to the home network.”
Skip Ashton, Silicon Labs: “Over the last five years, we have seen the proliferation of ZigBee-enabled products for mesh networking, coupled with advancements in ultra-low-power processing, connectivity, and sensing required by IoT end nodes. The ZigBee-enabled products range from connected lighting systems for the home and building automation to smart meters linking consumers and utilities to the smart grid. In addition, the past years have shown broad consumer acceptance of well-designed and implemented IoT products (such as smart thermostats, security systems, and connected lighting) and the rejection of confusing or poorly designed systems.
The most significant development over the past year has been the roll-out of Thread protocol, bringing IP to mesh networking applications. Designed for consumers and devices in and around the home, Thread is an IPv6 networking protocol built on open standards for low-power 802.15.4 mesh networks that can easily and securely connect hundreds of devices to each other and directly to the cloud. The non-profit Thread Group focuses on making Thread the foundation for the Internet of Things in the home, educating product developers and consumers on the unique features and benefits of Thread, and ensuring a great user experience through rigorous product certification.”
Challenges to innovation
Ashton: “The greatest challenge ahead for the connected home market is the need for seamless device interoperability at the application layer in the home. There are still too many competing alliances and application layer platforms such as HomeKit, Weave, Brillo, OIC, and AllJoyn, creating a fragmented environment for both developers and consumers. The industry needs to coalesce around a few open standards to help enable device-to-device interoperability in the home. This interoperability is crucial to the success of the connected home market. Consumers need the assurance that they can easily install connected home products from different vendors and service providers, and that these devices will communicate seamlessly with each other, regardless of the underlying wireless network protocol or application layer. After all, the ‘IT department’ for the connected home is the consumer! Connected home products must work flawlessly the first time, right out of the box.”
Walters: “We in the industry have been focusing on the wrong end of the communications stack, if you will. We’ve been focusing a lot on what radio standards we should use—is it Wi-Fi, is it Bluetooth—and what network is being used, be it Zigbee or something else. ZigBee or something else. And the reality is that while it’s important, inside a building or inside a home, that you’re all using the same network. When you’re taking about the Internet of Things talking about the Internet of Things, what you’re really talking about is bringing devices from many different, non-interoperable devices together. And in order to do that, you really need to have solid device descriptions and device behavior descriptions, and that’s what ZigBee Alliance has contributed to the industry today and wand will continue to do with our 3.0 launch. We’ll be describing how a light switch should work such that anybody in the IoT can immediately recognize that, ‘Oh, that’s a ZigBee light switch, and I know how to deal with it. I know what it’s telling me and I know what to tell it.’”
The power of interoperability
Walters: “The ZigBee Alliance itself doesn’t manufacture anything. We don’t build anything, we don’t sell anything. We just create the standards, specifications, and certification programs that allow our members to build products that will interoperate. We have some member companies that want to have their own application, and have their application only talk to their products. Sometimes they will use our standard and certify their products so they have interoperability with other companies’ products, and sometimes they won’t; they’ll actually make their products so they won’t interoperate with others. We’re trying very hard to discourage that and encourage interoperability across manufacturers and across devices. And the reason for that is then consumers have choice, there’s volume, there’s economies of scale, and it makes it easier for the developers of these apps to gain critical mass.
One of our member companies, probably one of the most well-known, is SmartThings, which was recently purchased by Samsung. And what SmartThings and other companies like SmartThings do is they take advantage of our interoperable standards and our certification programs, and they write an app for a door lock, or they write an app for a light switch or a light dimmer; and then because they’ve written that for a ZigBee standard, any manufacturer that builds to that standard will now work with their application. So that’s really the power of interoperability, and that’s what most of our new members are doing today. They’re not huge companies that build every device possible to go into the home; they’re specialized companies, door lock companies or thermostat companies or irrigation companies. And by building to our standard, they know that there is a single app out there by somebody like SmartThings or some large conglomerate application developer like Apple HomeKit that they can work with.”
Around the world
Walters: “Each country or each region has their own lifestyles and their own customs. One thing that has been very successful in North America for home controls has been going to the market through alarm companies like ADT or Vivint or through the telco providers like AT&T or Verizon. When you get into other countries, where 25 percent of their homes don’t have a monitored security system, that channel doesn’t exist. So we have to find a different distribution channel. And that has been a difficulty for this industry when it comes to getting into new countries. We got started in North America and got attached to a channel that doesn’t exist in China and doesn’t exist in most parts of Europe.
Another thing is that lifestyles are very different. In North America, it’s not uncommon to have a two, three or four thousand-square foot detached single family home. In fact, that’s where the lion share of this technology goes, to detached single family homes or into luxury multiple dwelling units. A lot of other places in the world just don’t have that; they don’t have the huge structures. It’s no big deal to turn off all the lights in your 800-square foot flat when you leave; it’s a little bit different when you trying to turn them off in your 4,000-square foot home.
ZigBee Alliance members are spread throughout the entire world and build products for the entire world. So we also are seeing our member companies using these technologies for emerging applications like robotics and in-home healthcare. Aging independently is a huge future market; we can just look at the demographics. The world’s population is aging rapidly, we’re all going to need a little extra assistance, and it’s all going to come from technology. We’ve seen a lot of interest in this area from our member companies, and we’re starting to see products from these companies now that are aimed specifically at assisted living. If you are visually restricted, mobility restricted, or cognitively restricted, this technology can give a helping hand. It can watch you to make sure you don’t fall or leave the stove on. It can help you turn the lights on. It can help to keep you safe. So that’s definitely a huge application space and use case looking forward.”
What lies ahead
Ashton: “The rapid growth of Thread-based systems is becoming a compelling reality for 2016, bringing the benefits of secure, standards-based, IP mesh networking to a wide range of products for the connected home. CES 2016 should be a real coming out party for Thread-enabled products, and we expect these systems to provide cloud and smartphone connectivity natively to simplify the consumer experience and usage.”
Walters: “What I’m most excited about personally is ZigBee 3.0 and the fact that as an organization, as a collection of member companies, we have listened to the market and realized that the approach we took a couple of years ago was not what the market was really asking for, and we’ve since changed course. We are now providing what the market is asking for, and that is unification, harmonization, taking all of this technology and putting it together into a single solution, and making sure that that solution then works with other solutions.
We’re very proactive in working with other technology suppliers—like the EnOcean Alliance, the AllSeen Alliance and the OIC Alliance—and we are really focused, as individual members and as an organization, on bringing all of us together into a single Internet of Things. Instead of talking about putting each other out of business, we’re talking about how to just get along. And that excites me tremendously, even though the technology aspects of that are daunting, the business aspects of that are even more so. We have entered into a new era where it can be done.”