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Thread standard may create multiple networks in your smart home

by nytime
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The Matter and Thread standards are supposed to ensure that a huge range of smart home devices can work seamlessly together, mirroring the benefits offered by HomeKit compatibility. But this isn’t the case, say multiple manufacturers.

The main benefit of Thread is that smart home devices can not only talk to each other, but one can pass on commands to another, boosting reliability. There is, however, a problem …

A quick recap on HomeKit, Matter, and Thread

Different smart home devices may be controlled in different ways and require different apps to be used. That’s the mess Apple set out to fix with HomeKit.

If a smart home device supports HomeKit, then it can always be controlled by Apple’s own Home app, and by Siri. So far, so good.

Despite Apple’s best efforts, only a minority of smart home devices support HomeKit. This problem is solved by the Matter standard, which is essentially the same idea as HomeKit, but supported by most smart home companies. If a smart home device is Matter-compatible, that’s effectively as good as HomeKit compatibility for practical purposes.

There is, however, another problem: reliability. For HomeKit or Matter commands to reach their intended device, there needs to be decent Wi-Fi coverage throughout the home. Many homes have black spots, or areas of weaker coverage – and that’s the problem Thread set out to solve.

All Thread-compatible devices can talk directly to each other. So if your Wi-Fi router signal can’t directly reach a lightbulb in a corner of your home, other Thread devices closer to the router can receive the command and pass it on.

This effectively means that every Thread device contributes to an extended mesh network in your home.

But there’s a problem with Thread

All of these standards are built on strong security principles. This means that before your lightbulb will respond to a command from your iPhone, the bulb wants to verify the identity of your iPhone, and your iPhone wants to verify the identity of the bulb. This two-way authentication process is normally handled by the HomeKit and Matter standards.

However, when a command is passed on via the Thread standards, those devices also need to carry out the same authentication process. And this is where the problem comes in.

As The Verge explains, the Thread Group hasn’t actually defined this security handshake as part of the standard, meaning that each manufacturer has to agree how they will handle it. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having the standard in the first place.

This means Apple has to work with Samsung; Amazon has to work with Google; Google with Samsung, and so on. While this is happening, it’s been very slow. And the current state of play is that the manufacturer can decide if its border router will join the Thread network created by its competitor or go ahead and set up its own network in your home.

Samsung, for example, kind of does its own thing.

If you already have a Thread network set up and add a SmartThings device that’s a Thread border router, it will set up its own network. “We are continuing to test different network configurations and interoperability between border routers and would like to enable this in the future in collaboration with others in the industry,” says Benson. “Today, to ensure the best experience for our users, we set up a new SmartThings Thread network.”

Apple and Google are ahead of the game, as you’d hope, but even here there are complications.

A border router you set up using iOS won’t see or talk to those you set up with Android unless you first set it up with iOS. And this only works if the platform or device has both an Android and iOS app. 

If (or more likely when) you end up with multiple Thread networks, there is no easy way to merge them, something else the Thread spec doesn’t provide a path for.

So instead of blanketing your home with a single Thread-enabled mesh network, extending the reach of your Wi-Fi router, the reality is you’re likely to end up with multiple Thread networks within your home, which don’t talk to each other.

The report says that manufacturers claim to be working on this problem – but they also made the same claim when Matter was launched, nine months ago, with no sign of any progress since then.

Photo: Linus Mimietz/Unsplash

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