Tech Firms Join Forces to Create Smart Home Connectivity Standard

Amazon, Apple, Google and the Zigbee Alliance are teaming up on a new Internet Protocol-based standard for smart home device connectivity, they jointly announced Wednesday.

Connected Home over IP will be an open source project. A working group will define a specific set of IP-based networking technologies for device certification.

The goal is to enable communication across smart home devices, mobile apps and cloud services.

The project will leverage development work and protocols from existing systems such as Amazon’s Alexa Smart Home, Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Weave, and the Zigbee Alliance’s Dotdot data models.

The standard will complement existing technologies.

“The message today to everyone already invested in current standards is to continue designing and bringing your products to market,” said Zigbee Alliance CEO Tobin Richardson. “We’re here to support our flagship standards — including Zigbee — and address advancements as they develop.”

The working group does not intend to standardize smart home user interfaces such as voice assistants, smart displays, or desktop and mobile apps.

Why IP?

Although Internet Protocol is the most common network layer used in homes and offices, there currently is no widely adopted open smart home standard based on it. Devices typically use proprietary protocols that must be tethered to a home network, according to the Connected Home over IP Working Group. A standard based on IP will allow devices to connect directly with standardized networking equipment.

There are multiple proprietary smart home device standards and three major platforms: Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri.

Amazon, Google and Apple are committed to continue support for consumers and their existing products, but there is no indication yet whether any of the other major players involved will do so.

“Existing protocols on IP are out there,” noted Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research. “The key here is the ability to perform interoperably and deliver enterprise-class security as well.”

Doing so “is not an easy task, but it’s also not impossible and is very much needed,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“This working group is in its infancy, and, as work gets under way, we’ll have more details to disclose,” Zigbee Alliance spokesperson Heather Chesterman told the E-Commerce Times.

First Look at Specs

A draft specification and a preliminary reference open source implementation are scheduled for release in late 2020.

The first spec release will focus on WiFi, up to and including 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), that is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax; Thread over 802.15.4-2006 at 2.4 GHz; and IP implementations for Bluetooth Low Energy, versions 4.1, 4.2, and 5.0 for the network and physical wireless protocols.

The reference implementation and its supporting tools will be developed and maintained on GitHub.

Compliant devices must implement at least one supported technology, but not necessarily all of them.

The standard likely will include other IP-bearing technologies such as Ethernet, cellular and broadband.

Hope Springs Eternal

Putting together a common industry standard “typically requires a major player to drive the process,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“Apple and Amazon are of equivalent power, and they don’t like each other,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Google has the power but lacks the focus needed, and Intel, Microsoft and Qualcomm don’t appear to be playing, so the effort may also lack critical mass.”

Most devices in smart homes use WiFi and Bluetooth rather than Zigbee, pointed out Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“So, if you want a solution that fits the home, you need the WiFi Alliance and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “That’s the first issue. Then you have the challenge of pulling hundreds or even thousands of viewpoints together. It would have been great if this was addressed five years ago.”

Keeping Things Secure

Smart devices, including baby monitors, have been hacked for years, and frequent hacks of Amazon’s Ring device cameras led consumer groups to issue a warning.

There are two aspects to the problem: Device manufacturers treat security as an afterthought, and consumers neglect basic security precautions, such as changing the factory-installed password, or they use easily guessed weak passwords.

Security will be a fundamental design requirement for the upcoming standard.

The new standard should leverage the cloud, Enderle said. “If done right, this will take much of the security problem away from consumers and put it in the hands of the cloud providers, who are now taking security very seriously.”

However, “I think the only solution is to have more intelligence in the home and not rely so much on the cloud,” McGregor asserted. “The combination of integrating AI and doing it locally is the only way to overcome some of the issues we see today with these devices.”

A Pre-emptive Strike?

Is the emphasis on security “a preemptive reaction to legislation”? wondered Constellation Research Principal Analyst Liz Miller.

California Senate Bill 37 and Assembly Bill 1906 require connected device manufacturers to equip each device with a reasonable security feature appropriate to its function, specific to how it collects, receives and transmits data, Miller said.

“There are no teeth to [the bills] but the reality is that legislation is coming,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “So is this move towards a unified standard meant to get out in front of the chaos and attempt to lay guide rails before legislation does it for us?”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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