In the not-too-distant-future, your refrigerator will talk with your oven, your toaster will converse with your microwave, and your light bulbs will communicate with their switches. It will be quite a conversation inside the four walls of the modern, connected home. But the language they will speak and the way they’ll connect with each other is still to be decided as a major battle is taking place inside the technology industry over one of the key milestones in Internet of Things (IoT) supremacy.
It has been naturally accepted that the leader of the pack in this area is Bluetooth, the global wireless standard that can be found in literally millions of uses, from wireless mice to all kinds of wearable devices. At the Bluetooth World conference in Santa Clara, California last month, Steve Hegenderfer, director of development programs for the Bluetooth SIG, spoke glowingly about the technology’s continued acceptance in the marketplace. “The growth of Bluetooth has been absolutely unprecedented,” said Hegenderfer.
However, underlying last month’s gathering of wireless technology partners – such as Qualcomm – and a wide range of developers and industry analysts, was a slight feeling of unease. As the IoT stakes get higher, Bluetooth will have to continue to innovate while fending off competitive challenges from other wireless standards like ZigBee and, more significantly, Google.
“While Bluetooth has achieved name brand recognition, it’s important to work with all of the other standards organizations to innovate,” said Robin Heydon, a senior director for Qualcomm.
As noble a cause as this might be, it’s not completely clear that other groups want to play nicely in the sandbox. Thread, a networking protocol that was founded two years ago by Google and Samsung, has now grown to include 80 well-funded members such as Huawei, Whirlpool and Philips.
Perhaps more ominously for Bluetooth, the ZigBee Alliance has recently decided to partner with Thread as the bigger industry players move more aggressively towards taking the world of connected home devices into the mass market.
Most technology observers believe that the “killer app” that will ultimately decide who wins or loses in the battle for the connected home is mesh networking. The concept behind mesh is that Bluetooth or Thread connected devices could seamlessly pass data among one another and thus blanket an entire structure with coverage, eliminating the need to channel everything through a single hub.
One example of how mesh works can already be found in the Sonos multi-room audio system that allows consumers to play music throughout their homes simultaneously in separate zones.
Much of the discussion at Bluetooth World last month centered around how to migrate to mesh. According to Hegenderfer, the Bluetooth SIG is in conversation with at least eight companies about the deployment of mesh networking, but he cautions that it would be a mistake to rush this technology before it is ready. “We need to make sure the first version that comes out is ready to go,” said Hegenderfer.
To complicate the battle for the hearts and minds of IoT consumers even further, there is also a separate movement growing towards what has become known as the physical web. A speaker at Bluetooth World last month – Scott Jenson – is one of the major leaders behind this technology. Not surprisingly, Jenson also works for Google.
The physical web is based on the premise that anyone should be able to walk up to any smart device and start using it without needing a mobile app to run things. So in Jenson’s world, you would walk up to a parking meter or vending machine and just pay without needing a corresponding mobile app because every device essentially can have its own web connection.
“We tend to ignore the ‘url’ bar,” said Jenson. “This is what makes the web the most amazing engine on the planet.”
Whether the communication between devices in the physical web or between smart home devices is through Bluetooth, Thread or another standard, there is profound hope that the continued growth of IoT is going to result in an easier experience for the user. A number of Bluetooth experts call this “being unthinkably connected,” where wireless technology just makes things happen with minimal effort. But from the discussion and debate in Santa Clara last month, there’s an awful lot of thinking that still has to happen before that becomes reality.