Why Thread is a game-changer for Apple's HomeKit

Posted:
in General Discussion edited November 2020
Thread provides many substantial benefits over existing connectivity options, and now that Apple has added it to HomePod mini, it is poised to be a game-changer for the HomeKit platform. Here's why.

The new Nanoleaf Essentials Bulb that supports Thread
The new Nanoleaf Essentials Bulb that supports Thread

Why Thread?

Thread is a new IP-based smart home connectivity standard, akin to Zigbee or Z-wave. Thread-enabled devices create a mesh network that interconnects all of the different devices together. With a mesh network, they can all connect and expand their reach far further than any single device could connect on its own.

Thread could connect lights, thermostats, smoke detectors, contact sensors, and more, allowing them to communicate throughout your home and extending their range.

Unlike Z-Wave and Zigbee (used by Philips Hue lights), Thread devices don't require their own hub to work. They can connect independently as well as too one another. It can also self-heal, so if one device goes out of commission, it will readjust to the next most substantial connection and keep stay up and running.

Rather than a single-use hub, these devices can connect online with what's known as a Border Router. This isn't a device itself by itself, but a feature of existing devices you may already have in your home. Some new routers are including Thread support, and of course HomePod mini.

Thread will create a mesh network between all Thread-enabled devices in your home, with no user configuration, and be aided by existing devices that can double as a Border Router.

It is also very low latency, making it usable for battery-powered accessories. Since it is an open standard, devices from many manufacturers will be compatible.

Compared with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

We already talked about how Thread is better than Zigbee and Z-Wave by not requiring a bridge to work and having no singular point of failure. Now, let's compare with what is more common in the HomeKit space. That would be Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

At the moment, nearly all HomeKit devices, except Philips Hue, use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-- both are very problematic.

Wi-Fi is useful because no matter where you have the device in your home, it can (hopefully) connect to your network to be reachable. It also can more easily enable remote access or connectivity to your Home Hub. But it has problems-- it only works on the 2.4GHz channel, almost always is required to be plugged into power, and must be in range of your Wi-Fi to connect.

Thread can extend far beyond the range of your Wi-Fi and into low-coverage areas of your home by simply connecting to other Thread devices that are nearby. It can also run on battery or low-power devices like door locks, smoke detectors, light bulbs, contact sensors, and more. Assuming your Home Hub supports Thread to enable remote connectivity, these Thread HomeKit devices will have all the benefits of Wi-Fi without the downsides.

Then there is Bluetooth. Bluetooth is fantastic because it is low power and allows the devices to run on battery power rather than a wall socket. Contact sensors, locks, temperature sensors, and more are all common Bluetooth HomeKit devices.

These devices run into their own issues. They must be within close Bluetooth range of your Home Hub to be reached when your phone isn't nearby. This can be very limiting, and automations can fail if you don't have a Home Hub within range. Bluetooth also can't extend itself.

Latency is a problem with Bluetooth too. The latency isn't bad, but it can be between 80 milliseconds and 800 milliseconds. ZigBee is around 50 milliseconds to 230 milliseconds, and Thread is only 40 milliseconds to 120 milliseconds. Out of all of them, Thread responds the fastest and has better range.

Connected by Thread

The non-profit group developing Thread has been around since 2016 but Apple didn't join until 2018. While we always assumed Thread would be coming to HomeKit accessories, it has taken some time before any Apple-specific hardware has supported the standard.

Apple's first piece of Thread-enabled hardware is the new HomePod mini. Apple's keynote came and went without a mention of Thread for HomePod mini, but it was listed as a line item in its tech specs. Many assumed we'd see something sooner rather than later, and they were right.

Nanoleaf has announced its new smart light platform, dubbed Nanoleaf Essentials, which support Thread. Additionally, Eve Systems has started to add Thread to its already existing products, rolling out firmware updates starting with its Door and Window Sensor before expanding to its entire product line.

It is incredible that Thread can simply be added through firmware and doesn't necessarily require new hardware. We anticipate that Thread will expand as big names like Apple hop on board.

The clear path forward

When you picture a future where all of your HomeKit devices pair together to blanket your whole home in a mesh network that has remote access and lightning-fast responsiveness, Thread seems like the logical path forward.

All of the current weak points -- lack of Wi-Fi coverage, hubs not close enough, no Wi-Fi on battery-powered devices, slow response times -- would be a thing of the past.

Thread is only now starting to make its way into consumer products, and it will likely play a big part in HomeKit and the Project Connect Home over IP group that Apple also joined in late 2019. Apple has been keeping the end-game square in its sights for years, and its vision can finally be realized with Thread.

HomeKit is ready to take off, and Thread is what will be tying it all together.
razorpit
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24
    Thank you for this article very, very informative.
    NumNutsmike1razorpitwilliamlondonScot1flyingdpsuperklotonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 24
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 22,898member
    Thread was a very underappreciated invention IMO. I'm honestly surprised it's taken so long to gain traction. Outside of Nest devices I'm not aware of other high-profile devices using it so good on Apple including it with the new Mini. Perhaps that means Nest devices may soon be Homekit friendly. 

     Home automation should be much more straightforward than it has been and Thread will be a major part of making it so.
    razorpitflyingdpsuperkloton
  • Reply 3 of 24
    So... homepod mini can play music from an iphone without wifi now? 
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 24
    seanjseanj Posts: 214member
     It is incredible that Thread can simply be added through firmware and doesn't necessarily require new hardware.”

    Are you listening Philips?... ;)
    razorpitcornchipScot1dbvaporflyingdprundhvidwatto_cobraDon.Andersen
  • Reply 5 of 24
    roakeroake Posts: 739member
    I can’t believe it took this long for a solution like this to come out.  That being said, Thread appears to be very well thought out.  It is nice that Apple has adopted it.  Since it is open source and free for manufacturers to use, I hope to see more manufacturers using it.  This seems to go a long ways toward, “It just works” for IOT.
    razorpitScot1superklotonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 24
    cg27cg27 Posts: 125member
    Excellent news, one day soon HomeKit devices will truly be Plug and Play, finally.  Actually, just Play, no Plug, in many cases.  Glad I’ve resisted the urge to plunge into any home automation, including HomeKit, knowing that it should be easier and better.  
    razorpitcornchipwilliamlondonsuperklotonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 24
    Still unconvinced there is any value whatsoever in home automation.

    People who’ve bothered to dive into home automation:  What were the biggest problems solved for you? And were the solutions costly?
    edited November 2020 williamlondon
  • Reply 8 of 24
    mike1mike1 Posts: 2,635member
    Hoping some of my HomeKit devices will receive Thread functionality through firmware updates. Looking at you Arlo, Wemo, LIFX and August.
    Not to mention, the original HomePod.
    edited November 2020 Scot1watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 24
    mobirdmobird Posts: 568member
    Will the original HomePods receive a update to enable "Thread"?
    Scot1dbvaporwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 24
    Still unconvinced there is any value whatsoever in home automation.

    People who’ve bothered to dive into home automation:  What were the biggest problems solved for you? And were the solutions costly?
    I have several HomeKit devices around the house. I wouldn’t really say I use them as solutions to a problem, though, more a convenience.

    For instance, I have the outside garage lights and breezeway lights turn on when anyone in my house arrives home after dark. They all turn off 10 minutes later. It’s not really a problem coming home in the dark but it’s certainly nice to have the lights on and waiting for us.

    I tend to wake up before my wife and have an automation which runs when I stop my alarm that turns on lights in our bedroom and bathroom so I can see enough to get ready but leave them dim enough not to bother her sleep. It also adjusts the thermostat on the main floor so it will be comfortable when I get down there.

    I have more like that but that gives you an idea. As to cost, I suppose that’s relative. The light switches for the garage and breezeway ran about $60 each. I have 3 ecobee thermostats that I purchased through a promotion offered by our natural gas company for $40 each, I think they normally go for over $100 each.

    A friend of mine set up an automation with his window sensor, thermostat and an outlet so in the summer, when he opens a window it will automatically turn off his A/C unit and turn on his whole house fan. Again, mostly a convenience factor.
    Dogpersonrazorpitmike1cornchipScot1rundhvidwatto_cobraolmy
  • Reply 11 of 24
    cornchipcornchip Posts: 1,848member
    cg27 said:
    Excellent news, one day soon HomeKit devices will truly be Plug and Play, finally.  Actually, just Play, no Plug, in many cases.  Glad I’ve resisted the urge to plunge into any home automation, including HomeKit, knowing that it should be easier and better.  
    Other than not really having the cash for this stuff either, I’m right there with you. I’ve been keeping an eye on this stuff for years, but having to have some kind of hub and this company has these things and the other company has those things and where am I gonna stash all these boulders of hubs, NNAAAAAAHHHH. 

    Very much liking the sound of this hubless future, or if I do have to have one, making it a home pod or two. At least they’re useful and look nice.
    williamlondonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 24
    zimmiezimmie Posts: 523member
    Still unconvinced there is any value whatsoever in home automation.

    People who’ve bothered to dive into home automation:  What were the biggest problems solved for you? And were the solutions costly?
    A coworker has had some flooding issues with his house. He now has moisture detectors around the major water sources (multiple AC units, multiple water heaters, laundry room; it was originally one floor and expanded to two) which can alert him if there's a leak, even if there isn't someone around to hear an audible alarm.
    SpamSandwichdbvaporwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 24
    mike1mike1 Posts: 2,635member
    zimmie said:
    Still unconvinced there is any value whatsoever in home automation.

    People who’ve bothered to dive into home automation:  What were the biggest problems solved for you? And were the solutions costly?
    A coworker has had some flooding issues with his house. He now has moisture detectors around the major water sources (multiple AC units, multiple water heaters, laundry room; it was originally one floor and expanded to two) which can alert him if there's a leak, even if there isn't someone around to hear an audible alarm.

    I have three Fibaro water sensors. One under the kitchen sink (had two faucets start to leak), one behind my washing machine and one in the closet with my hot water tank.
    I test them every once in a while by pouring a little water under them and they seem to work very well. Make an audible sound as well as alerting our phones.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 24
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,613member
    gatorguy said:
    Thread was a very underappreciated invention IMO. I'm honestly surprised it's taken so long to gain traction. Outside of Nest devices I'm not aware of other high-profile devices using it so good on Apple including it with the new Mini. Perhaps that means Nest devices may soon be Homekit friendly. 

     Home automation should be much more straightforward than it has been and Thread will be a major part of making it so.
    The main benefit of Thread is that it is IP based (IPv6 in fact), while ZWave Plus and Zigbee each employ their own non-IP protocol that requires a gateway/bridge to connect their unique protocols to IP based clients and other nodes. The use of IP has major benefits with respect to things like device discovery, device identity, connection management, and routing because everyone is speaking the same language. Bridging across protocols always introduces more complexity and delays because the intermediary (gateway/bridge) has to be a fully functioning node on both networks at the same time. It's far more than simply language translation, it involves things like managing communication timeouts, node health status reporting, maintaining routing tables, etc,. or basically doing everything a node has to do to be a good citizen on a network - times two.

    Having IP everywhere simplifies everything and positions Thread very well for the emerging IoT challenges and opportunities.   

    All three of these networks are mesh based, have device profiles to allow auto-configuration, employ self-healing techniques, have accommodations for optimizing their use with battery operated devices, support range extension, and have encrypted communication, so none of those things are really differentiators. The special sauce for Thread is the use of IP and the fact that it builds on 6LoWPAN, which has some degree of maturity.

    I must add that one recurring challenge with device networks is that there are always too many standards from the customer's perspective. Despite claims of being a "game changing" new standard, the new standard rarely replaces all of the existing standards. Instead, it typically fragments the market even further. Every single time I've seen a new "one standard to replace all standards" come along, which I've experienced several times over a few decades of being involved in similar standards, the end result is that standard A and standard B do not go away or get replaced by standard C. You end up with standard A and standard B and standard C. In fact, standards A and B will even update and improve their standards over time to make them less vulnerable to being obsoleted. The end results is usually: Dear customer - please pick one, and can I interest you in a nice gateway? 


    edited November 2020 flyingdptenthousandthingsp-dogroakerundhvidunsui_grep
  • Reply 15 of 24
    Every night when I tell Siri to turn off all the lights, there's usually at least one random bulb that doesn't respond (all my bulbs are from Philips with a Hue Bridge). All bulbs respond during the day, but at night something is different. I'm guessing EM interference. Changing the zigbee channel does change the number of bulbs that fail each day, but no channel works 100% of the time. On some channels 50% of the bulbs don't reply in the evening. Basically, I'm fed up. It sounds like this new protocol may solve my problems.

    However when it works, such as mornings and afternoons, it's wonderful. As I walk around my house, motion sensors turn the lights on (and off). I haven't touched a light switch in years in my house (except in the evening when the signals sometimes fail.) And since I generally live and work on a "night shift," that means I do in fact need lights in my home when I'm at home.

    For those people who actually enjoy pressing buttons all day long to turn their lights on and off, good for you.
    watto_cobramacgui
  • Reply 16 of 24
    I would be more interested in Thread and other Apple connectivity technology if the company was not spying on our activity and sending it back to their servers unencrypted with no way to turn it off. This is no way for a company to act that boasts so much about its user privacy features.
    https://9to5mac.com/2020/11/13/apple-server-outage-reveals-mac-privacy-concerns/
  • Reply 17 of 24
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,613member
    Every night when I tell Siri to turn off all the lights, there's usually at least one random bulb that doesn't respond (all my bulbs are from Philips with a Hue Bridge). All bulbs respond during the day, but at night something is different. I'm guessing EM interference. Changing the zigbee channel does change the number of bulbs that fail each day, but no channel works 100% of the time. On some channels 50% of the bulbs don't reply in the evening. Basically, I'm fed up. It sounds like this new protocol may solve my problems.

    However when it works, such as mornings and afternoons, it's wonderful. As I walk around my house, motion sensors turn the lights on (and off). I haven't touched a light switch in years in my house (except in the evening when the signals sometimes fail.) And since I generally live and work on a "night shift," that means I do in fact need lights in my home when I'm at home.

    For those people who actually enjoy pressing buttons all day long to turn their lights on and off, good for you.
    I’ve had zero problems with ZWave Plus, but this is one data point. I have around 40 nodes.
    jeff_cookwatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 24
    dewme said:
    Every night when I tell Siri to turn off all the lights, there's usually at least one random bulb that doesn't respond (all my bulbs are from Philips with a Hue Bridge). All bulbs respond during the day, but at night something is different. I'm guessing EM interference. Changing the zigbee channel does change the number of bulbs that fail each day, but no channel works 100% of the time. On some channels 50% of the bulbs don't reply in the evening. Basically, I'm fed up. It sounds like this new protocol may solve my problems.

    However when it works, such as mornings and afternoons, it's wonderful. As I walk around my house, motion sensors turn the lights on (and off). I haven't touched a light switch in years in my house (except in the evening when the signals sometimes fail.) And since I generally live and work on a "night shift," that means I do in fact need lights in my home when I'm at home.

    For those people who actually enjoy pressing buttons all day long to turn their lights on and off, good for you.
    I’ve had zero problems with ZWave Plus, but this is one data point. I have around 40 nodes.
    For the Phillips issue please consider buying a Zigbee outlet which can act as a repeater repeater. Should be relatively cheap fix.  I have Wifi, Zigbee and Zwave devices.  That said, I prefer ZWave as well.    Not very interested in Thead because its IP based.  I prefer something that can't "call home" and create a backdoor into my LAN from the outside. 
  • Reply 19 of 24
    BeatsBeats Posts: 2,319member
    I thought of this idea back in 2008. I wish i was an engineer. I may have to study to make my ideas a reality.
  • Reply 20 of 24
    Cool to see Apple finally on par with Alexa and Nest with the implementation of Thread. Still need more products to use it but they are coming. Amazon also added Thread capabilities to their Eero mesh networks awhile back. Should make all of this easier for all.  Now to wait for the Alexa and Nest haters to show up to preach about their privacy. 
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