Apple and Zigbee Alliance to be Big Winners in New Smart Home Announcement with Amazon and Google
Amazon, Apple, and Google are collaborating with Samsung, IKEA, and other Zigbee Alliance members around a new set of smart home standards. A new working group called Project Connect Home over IP has been formed “to develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet,” according to a press release jointly issued today by Apple and Zigbee Alliance. Google also mentioned the new initiative in a blog post earlier today.
The announcement also says that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Zigbee Alliances all plan to contribute smart home technology from Alexa smart home, HomeKit, Weave, and Dotdot Data respectively. It is also planned to be an open source project from the outset. According to the Working Group project page, “The reference implementation of the new standard, and its supporting tooling, will be developed and maintained on the GitHub open source platform for all aspects of the specification.”
There are numerous smart home communication protocols in use today including Bluetooth, BLE, sub-GHzThread, WiFi, zigbee, and Z-wave. The new Working Group is not necessarily looking to replace these protocols, but to provide a new communication standard for smart home devices based on Internet Protocol (IP). According to a webpage dedicated to the Working Group initiative:
“[IP] is the most common network layer used in our homes and offices. With IP, messages can be routed across networks independent of the physical and link layers underlying them and there are ample battle tested algorithms and infrastructure for performing routing, switching and firewalling in robust and resilient ways. On top of IP, you inherit well-known transport protocols like TCP and UDP. Consequently, IP is an ideal way to deliver end-to-end security and privacy in communication between a device and another device, app, or service.”
The Working Group is being positioned as good for both consumers and smart home device makers. Consumers are expected to have fewer interoperability problems for their networked smart home devices while, “the project aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build devices that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and others.” And, there you have a key catalyst behind the initiative. Voice assistants are proprietary and may be fragmenting the home network as smart devices attempt to support multiple proprietary end-points. That scenario could increase the security vulnerability of home networks. Bringing all parties onto a common IP-based protocol could make the network easier to defend against hacking techniques.
This is a Win for Apple
New protocols based on IP could also ensure that no leading voice platform gets left out of smart home device compatibility. Apple is likely to be the biggest winner on this front. Amazon announced today that Alexa is now supported by 100,000 smart home devices and as of May 2019 the figure was 30,000 for Google. By contrast, Apple’s HomeKit for iOS app and Siri integration is supported by just a few hundred devices. It has been an open question about how quickly Apple could close that gap. A new protocol supported by the industry could reduce Apple’s current feature liability to zero.
This is a Win for Zigbee Alliance
The news is also a win for the Zigbee Alliance. Although the Working Group efforts are not necessarily focused on low power wireless data transmission, the fact that Zigbee Alliance is involved as a contributor of intellectual property and organizer of the activities should ensure the continued support of the protocol and potentially an expansion of its use. The open zigbee protocol competes with the proprietary Z-wave protocol, each providing different benefits.
It has long been speculated that one protocol may eventually win out and the new working group may be the first step in that direction. The smart speaker and voice assistant leaders are now key drivers in the smart home segment and this initiative is likely to drive them to closer collaboration with zigbee or an IP-based successor. None of the tech giants will want to be tied to Silicon Labs, the current owner of Z-wave, as a gatekeeper of smart home protocols or features. Note the prominent mention of a “royalty-free connectivity standard,” in the announcement.
The Working Group is expected to produce its first work product around the new protocol in “late 2020.” You can sign up to get involved or receive updates on the initiative here.