A Shared Mesh: The Promise Of Thread and Why It May be the Key to Unlocking a Better Smart Home

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April 5, 2021 | 8 Min Read

There is a lot going on with smart home technology today. As a valued member of the internet community, you likely know about Wi-Fi. As someone who is quite possibly reading this on your smartphone, or listening to music wirelessly, you probably also know about Bluetooth. And if you’ve ventured into smart home tech, you might have heard of Thread, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth Mesh, LoRa, and many others. Thread is increasing in prominence, and for good reason. We at Nanoleaf believe Thread will be as important to the Smart Home of the future as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are to your digital life today.

To help understand what I think is one of the most compelling parts of Thread, I want to introduce some terminology. I believe we need to view a Thread mesh as a “Shared Mesh.” Let’s talk briefly about the mesh part.

A mesh is really important in the smart home of the future where devices need to talk to each other, not just to smartphones. A mesh allows you to easily extend your wireless coverage just by plugging in certain devices like light bulbs. A Thread mesh in particular is also important because devices need less power to connect to it than Wi-Fi. This means battery-powered motion sensors can last for years, and lights designed for energy efficiency can stay efficient and connected even when you don’t need light.

So now, let’s talk about the key thing: A Thread mesh can be shared. Can you imagine if you needed one Wi-Fi router from Company A to make your laptop work, and a different one from Company B to make your smartphone work? It sounds inefficient, right? We have a term for this approach in smart homes: it’s called a Hub. But there is a better solution. Just like the Internet replaced siloed services like AOL and CompuServe, Thread is positioned to replace siloed smart home meshes with a proper Shared Mesh.

Let’s unpack this a bit more. There are three pieces that Thread’s Shared Mesh brings:

  1. It’s Internet-ready
  2. It’s interchangeable, not just interoperable
  3. It’s a better innovation enabler

Thread being Internet-ready means it uses IP (Internet Protocol) technology. In many ways, Thread is a spiritual successor of Zigbee, a closely related technology. A key limitation of Zigbee is that the standard doesn’t specify how the rest of your home devices running on Wi-Fi should talk directly to your devices on the mesh. Whichever Hub sits in the middle is free to define things how it wants, which typically means a user will be limited by the software provided by the Hub’s manufacturer. This also means that you can end up with three different Zigbee meshes running in the same home in order to cover different use-cases. Thread solves this by aligning the underlying tech of Zigbee (802.15.4) with the IP tech that is already on your Wi-Fi network and the Internet. This allows your Thread devices to communicate with other Wi-Fi devices and even cloud services you’ve subscribed to in exactly the same way, regardless of who is relaying the messages.

Figure 1: Being Internet-ready brings rise to the Shared Mesh

This brings me to my next point, which is that Thread allows for interoperable and interchangeable Border Routers, a key component of a Shared Mesh. Border Routers are the devices that communicate with both your home Wi-Fi network and your Thread network using simple and well-understood IP routing. Since they use standard IP technology, you can replace them with newer or more capable Border Routers without worrying about reconfiguring all of your Thread devices. If a company goes out of business, or discontinues support for an old Border Router, it’s just as simple as swapping it out with an updated one – the same way we do today with our Wi-Fi routers. Border Routers also don’t need to be stand-alone devices. They could be combined with your Wi-Fi router, included as part of a smart speaker, smart TV, or even a lighting device. So if your smart speaker is a Border Router today, a couple of months or years down the road, you might also have a Wi-Fi router or a more capable lighting device that also provides Thread Border Routing for the same Shared Mesh. This flexibility allows the natural adoption of Thread in the home. As you build out your Shared Mesh, you don’t need to be worried about locking yourself into a particular ecosystem in the future.

Figure 2: Interchangeability means you won’t be tied to your Shared Mesh through a single company.

The last piece where a Shared Mesh shines is through enabling innovation. IP technology is the reason the Internet is so powerful, and Thread extends that to low-power devices. IP is standardized enough such that the vast majority of electronic devices today can communicate with each other. At the same time, it’s generic enough where bright new ideas don’t need to wait for slow moving standardization efforts. If a manufacturer or App developer in the future has an amazing idea for a low power smart home device, they can leverage the Shared Mesh that exists in the smart homes of today that have adopted Thread, and those of tomorrow. This gives them confidence that their software Apps – which often live on smartphones, computers, or the cloud – will be able to communicate reliably with their low powered devices. They don’t need to own the ecosystem or the networking hardware. They just need to own the innovation. This will benefit the user. This will benefit the innovator. And this will benefit the industry.

Figure 3: A Shared Mesh means future innovation doesn’t need to worry about every component in the Mesh – just the ones where they are innovating on

My hope in this post is that the concept of a “Shared Mesh” becomes an important piece of your understanding of the benefits of Thread. A Shared Mesh is an important piece of why Thread is so powerful, even though the devices that use it aren’t that power-hungry. If you want to learn more about how a Shared Mesh can benefit you, reach out to the Thread Group and visit their website to discover more about Thread in the smart home.

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