CES 2022 product announcements signal the end of the consumer IoT “connectivity wars” that began over 20 years ago. Two complementary industry standards are transforming the Internet of Things from a hodge-podge of incompatible gadgets into a scalable industry with interoperable, plug-and-play products from multiple suppliers:
- Matter – “Lingua franca” for the Internet of Things
- Thread – IP-based mesh network for low power devices
With Matter and Thread, consumers can buy connected products such as door locks, window shades, light switches, thermostats, and cameras that plug-and-play with existing Wi-Fi networks and home ecosystems such as Alexa, Google Assistant, HomeKit, and SmartThings. There’s no vendor lock-in, nothing extra to buy, no complicated hub to configure, and setup is a few clicks on a smartphone app. Although this vision sounds too good to be true, the open specifications that make it possible have been in the works for years and are now widely adopted. At CES, big consumer brands and chip companies demonstrated Matter running in real-world devices, dozens of companies announced new products supporting Matter and Thread, and hundreds more are on the way. The trend towards Matter and Thread is rapidly becoming a gold rush as influential companies stake claims. Thread and Matter are eliminating IoT scaling barriers by making multivendor interoperability practical over industry-standard networks using off-the-shelf silicon. Here’s how it all works.
After eight years of development, Thread is now a first-class wireless device network alongside Wi-Fi. Thread and Wi-Fi carry the same kinds of Internet Protocol messages, but Thread is suitable for low-power devices that run on batteries, even coin cells. Also, Thread is a mesh network. Some Thread devices (typically mains-powered ones) act as routing nodes, automatically extending the network by relaying messages from one device to another. Consequently, a Thread mesh typically has better residential coverage and reliability than Wi-Fi, especially for low-power devices.
Although Thread has been around for years, it has been slow to catch on, partly because it does not specify an “application layer” – a standard set of commands and data formats that enable device communication. Like Wi-Fi, Thread defines the network protocols but not the message content. That’s intentional – it’s a feature, not a bug. Thread is an IP-based network by design, so it is inherently message-agnostic. Your home Wi-Fi router doesn’t care about the content of the messages that flow through it. Those messages can be web pages, audio, video, photos, or documents. Likewise, Thread doesn’t care if you’re sending messages to unlock a door, turn on a light, set the temperature, or raise a window shade. But without a standard that defines the content of those messages, devices from different manufacturers don’t interoperate. That’s where Matter comes in. Matter is an application layer that runs over Thread and other IP-based networks.
Matter, founded two years ago within the Connectivity Standards Alliance, normalizes the messages that flow to and from IoT devices, enabling Matter products from various manufacturers to communicate with one other over Thread, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet. In other words, Matter defines a common language for IoT networking, making multivendor IoT product interoperability practical.
Although creating a lingua franca for residential IoT is a very ambitious project, Matter is likely to succeed because its sponsors include some of the biggest brands in consumer electronics – Amazon, Apple, and Google. These companies, plus over 200 others, agree that removing undifferentiated friction from the IoT marketplace is more important than any perceived competitive advantage from using proprietary networks or messages. So, industry-leading companies have assigned senior-level talent to the project and are already incorporating Matter into consumer product portfolios. This year, the first wave of plug-and-play Matter products hits the market, creating an inflection point in IoT industry growth. Matter is likely to rapidly displace the non-interoperable “walled gardens” that dominate consumer IoT today.
Here’s a slightly more technical view of Matter from an IoT device perspective (Figure 1). At the top of the stack, IoT devices and ecosystems send and receive Matter network messages via standard Internet protocols – TCP/IP and UDP, with IPv6 addressing. Wi-Fi and Thread networks deliver these messages to Matter-enabled products. Matter also uses Bluetooth LE to simplify adding nodes to a Matter network via smartphones. With three types of radios and a Matter API, IoT products from any manufacturer can plug and play with other products and ecosystems.
An old argument for using proprietary messaging is that products need differentiating capabilities that are not necessarily part of a universal standard. But how many different ways do we need to set a temperature or turn on a light? The correct answer is “one.” However, some products have unique features that Matter does not define. In these cases, manufacturers are free to define proprietary messages because IP networks do not restrict message content. So, functions common to many products such as transmitting well-known commands and data types and setting up new devices on a network work predictably across all Matter devices without restricting manufacturers from using non-interoperable product-differentiating messages where appropriate.
Thread border router
Thread is an integral part of the Matter vision. Although Wi-Fi is great for cameras, thermostats, and other plug-in devices, Thread is better for small, battery-powered things. Low power mesh networks such as Zigbee, Z-Wave, Insteon, and others have been around for 20 years, so why do we need another one? The legacy networks do not use IP protocols, so each requires “protocol translation” by a hub or gateway to communicate with the IP-connected world. In contrast, Thread doesn’t need protocol translation because it uses the same IP protocols as Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Therefore, Thread does not need a hub or gateway device. Matter messages are routed directly to any device connected by Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or Thread.
Thread devices can plug and play on existing home networks, provided that there is at least one Thread border router to act as a bridge between Thread and Wi-Fi (Figure 2). But consumers don’t want to buy and manage another router or hub specifically to enable Thread. Like I said above, we’re trying to get rid of hubs. That’s why Amazon, Apple, Google, and other consumer electronics ecosystems are busy incorporating Thread border router capabilities into new products such as smart speakers, Wi-Fi routers, and TV streaming boxes. With one or more of these devices installed in a home, Thread devices “just work” when first plugged in without special hubs or routers.
Border router silicon
Matter’s success largely depends on the universal availability of popular networked consumer products (such as smart speakers) with built-in Thread border router capabilities. In homes with one or more of these products, Matter-enabled Thread devices plug and play without buying additional hardware.
Market leaders Amazon, Apple, Google, and others are already shipping a few products with integrated Thread border routers, and many more are on the way for this year. One way to accelerate the growth of Thread and Matter is to reduce the cost and development time for adding Thread border router capabilities to smart-home products. Manufacturers need complete Thread border router subsystems that easily integrate into cost-sensitive consumer products.
Border routers need three radios – Thread (802.15.4, the same radio used by Zigbee), Wi-Fi (for connecting with the home network), and Bluetooth LE (for adding new Thread devices). Although chips and modules for all three of these radios are readily available from many silicon suppliers, integration is surprisingly complicated. For instance, all three radios share the same 2.4GHz ISM band, creating gnarly coexistence problems. Also, developers need software stacks that work together across all three radios, and regulatory certification must be straightforward. A single chip with converged, ready-to-use software stacks would certainly decrease product cost and time-to-market. That brings us to the NXP IW612.
NXP IW612 tri-radio SoC
At CES, NXP announced the IW612 with complete subsystems for Thread (802.15.4), Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth LE on a single chip (Figure 3), including RF power amplifiers. Integrating all three radios in a single monolithic SoC addresses the three-radio coexistence challenges while unifying the software stack, reducing the cost and development time for adding Thread border router capabilities to connected products. The chip runs Matter over both Thread and Wi-Fi while using Bluetooth LE for connecting new devices. NXP demonstrated an IW612 based border router at CES 2022. The chip has been sampling since early 2021, with consumer products targeted for 2022.
The IW612 paves the way for universal availability of Thread border routers in every smart home, and we expect similar SoCs from other suppliers in 2022.
After 20 years of incompatible radios, proprietary protocols, vertical product silos, annoying hub (gateway) devices, bafflingly confusing device onboarding procedures, bewildering shopping experiences, and unnecessarily high device costs, the consumer electronics industry is rapidly adopting two new practical, scalable, and open connectivity standards – Matter and Thread. The vision of buying a smart home device from any manufacturer with confidence that it’ll work with your existing Wi-Fi network and chosen ecosystem(s) is finally becoming a reality. Rapid adoption is likely because Amazon, Apple, Google, and over 200 companies are on board and announcing products.
Let the gold rush begin!
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.