ZigBee and Thread act to make their IoT smarts stack up

ZigBee products will be able to use Thread for networking

Thread Q&A
More than 300 people attended an event for the Thread Group at Google headquarters on Tuesday. Credit: Stephen Lawson

Two pieces in the complicated puzzle of smart-home options will snap together later this year when the ZigBee Alliance starts certifying devices that use the Thread protocol for networking.

The industry groups behind these two systems have agreed to work out how they can both be integrated into the same product: Thread for exchanging data packets with other devices and ZigBee for defining how applications work on the device. This should lead to ZigBee products that can talk to many more devices in the Internet of Things.

As the latest edition of the International CES trade show begins on Tuesday, consumers are faced with a slew of new standards, protocols and frameworks to tie home IoT products together as an easily managed system. On Monday, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced it's finished a new specification it calls Wi-Fi HaLow, which uses less power so it can work in small battery-powered devices.

Consumers could benefit from steps to combine some of these approaches. Research company Parks Associates estimates that 43 percent of U.S. households will buy a connected-home product this year.

ZigBee has been around since 2002 and been used in millions of lights, sensors, locks, medical devices and other connected objects. It's a set of technologies for dealing not just with how products connect to each other but also how applications work with them. Thread is newer, having emerged as a low-power IP (Internet Protocol) networking system in 2014.

Now the groups behind the technologies will make Thread compatible with the ZigBee Common Applications Library, a recently announced platform that covers all use cases for ZigBee. In the third quarter of this year, the ZigBee Alliance plans to launch a certification program for Thread-plus-ZigBee products.

Consumers would be able to combine those devices with other ZigBee objects while using IP networking, the standard for communications over Wi-Fi and home broadband out to the Internet. ZigBee products with Thread could also expand Thread coverage across a home by building one mesh including things like Nest thermostats, which also use Thread.

The move announced Tuesday will fulfill a deal between the groups last April to explore making the technologies work together. It's not the end of all-ZigBee products, which will continue to come out, says Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance. The Thread Group is also exploring integration with other application-layer protocols.

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