Controlling the home, Google style

Jul 17 2014, 15:12 IST
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Google’s Nest thermostat company is at the forefront of an effort to make home devices talk with each other as well as the Internet. Google’s Nest thermostat company is at the forefront of an effort to make home devices talk with each other as well as the Internet.
SummaryGoogle’s Nest thermostat company is at the forefront of an effort to make home devices talk with each other as well as the Internet.

When Google goes after the home, it goes big. And maybe it goes after control, too. Early this week, Nest, a Google-owned company that makes Internet-connected thermostats and smoke alarms, was one of six companies that announced a consortium to promote the easy online connection of other devices.

How many devices per home? “Two hundred and fifty products per home network,” said Chris Boross, the president of the consortium, known as the Thread Group, and also the head of technical marketing at Nest. “That should provide ample room for growth in the future.”

Considering that now just a handful of home devices, like televisions and video cameras, connect to the Internet, the ceiling of 250 devices certainly seems ample. But the big number of items is not as interesting as how the group seems to be thinking about how the so-called Internet of Things will function.

“Devices will talk to each other in subtle ways,” Boross said. “If a thermostat thinks no one is home, it might be nice to turn out the lights. If a lock opens, maybe the lights will come on.”

Sounds futuristic. It also sounds like one of the oldest realities in the networking business: To control the profit margins, control the management layer, the thing that tells other things what to do. What Thread proposes is a mesh network, in which devices are easily brought online, and communicate with each other as much as they do with the home Wi-Fi router that sends signals about personal and device behaviour to and from the Internet.

This makes Thread different from recently announced efforts by an Intel-led group, and another one featuring technology from Qualcomm, for a standard between routers and devices. Thread is more likely a way to connect everything, then have all those household products reach the Internet via the Intel or Qualcomm communications standard or some other standard.

Another difference is that both the Qualcomm and Intel groups propose to open-source their communications standards. To date, Thread’s standard is proprietary. Boross said member companies might choose to open-source their technology later on.

The promise of Thread is that household devices can easily and securely be configured for home use, and people can enjoy this kind of home intelligence that comes of certain devices (like Nest thermostats, which are designed to learn about their owner’s habits) assisting other objects that have less machine intelligence. In a network of equals, these would effectively become key control points.

Other members of the Thread Group include ARM, Freescale Semiconductor and Silicon Labs, all makers of lower-power semiconductors that tend not to have a lot of processing power. That makes them more power-efficient and less complex than, say, chips from Intel or Qualcomm, and more dependent on Nest-type products to connect to the cloud, where in this version of the connected home most of the computation is likely to take place.

Besides Nest, consumer product companies in the group are Big Ass Fans, Yale Security and the appliance arm of Samsung. Other large makers of home products, like Westinghouse, Philips, Honeywell or General Electric, were not included.

Among technology companies, representatives of both Intel and Qualcomm said there was little contact, if any, with the Thread Group before the announcement. Apple was not invited to join, said Sujata Neidig, a business development manager at Freescale and a member of the Thread board. Apple has a framework for home device communications known as HomeKit.

“Time to market was a priority,” she said. “Things they are doing around HomeKit could be complementary; we don’t know.” Applications to join the Thread Group will be available later this year, the group said. Product certification should begin in 2015.

Quentin Hardy

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