Part one of a two-part series on how Dotdot + Thread are delivering on the promise of the IoT.
“Technology is just stuff that doesn’t work yet.”
Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker’s Guide Fame, wrote this borrowed piece of insight in his blog post “How to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet”. (If you haven’t read it, you absolutely should. It’s a bit dated now, but replace “Internet” with “IoT”, or really any new technology trend, and it’ll be perpetually relevant.)
Adams reminds us that while we don’t think of a chair, or a lightbulb, or a door lock as technology, at one time they were. And while we have a lot of patience for “technology”, we have remarkably less so for those things we take for granted.
A crashed app or restarting a laptop usually elicits little more than a shrug of acceptance. With the Internet of Things, however, we are doing something we’ve never done before. We’re adding technology — connectivity and “smart features” — to devices in categories that have been so reliable that we no longer think of them as technology. This is creating remarkable new opportunities for brands to engage with users, but remarkable new opportunities for frustrations. Because when these things we take for granted don’t work — when that light doesn’t come on or that door doesn’t open — it’s infuriating. And too often in today’s smart home, they don’t work.
That’s because we’ve been building the IoT in ways we know don’t work! We’ve been through all this before. The early days of the Internet looked a lot like today’s IoT: America Online, Compuserve, MSN, and others. “Walled gardens” with proprietary interfaces forced you to choose which “Internet” you would be part of. The one you picked determined what information you could access, what features you had, and who you could talk to. You were pretty much limited to whatever innovation that ecosystem vendor could provide. It was frustrating, unscalable, and innovation was slow. For anyone with a smart home platform today this should sound disappointingly familiar.
We’ve solved this problem before
Our experience with the Internet means we know how to solve this problem — because we’ve done it already. Today’s Internet has proven to be a platform for limitless innovation, enabled by two of its core technologies:
A foundation of IP that seamlessly connects every device on the Internet regardless of what transport or radio they use (Ethernet, Wi-Fi, fiber, 3G, LTE, etc.) and,
Open, common protocols, or languages (like HTTP, FTP, IMAP, HTML, CSS, etc.) over that IP foundation that allow our devices to communicate regardless of which brand of laptop, smartphone, or browser we’re using.
These two things are why I can build a website and know that you can read it regardless of which service provider, device, or browser you’re reading it on. It’s why you can buy a router from many different vendors and still access whatever content you want. It’s why you can change your phone and still access all the services and data you had before. It’s how our entire world works. It’s the fundamental connectivity platform in every one of our pockets and the ones that will be there tomorrow.
Dotdot, as a common language for IoT devices, together with Thread as an IP network for IoT devices, literally extends that powerful platform for innovation to the Internet of Things.
Putting the Internet in Internet of Things
Dotdot is a common language for the smart objects we rely on every day, so they can speak to each other effortlessly on any network, and make themselves more useful to all of us.
Let’s imagine you and I want to communicate wirelessly. So we buy a pair of walkie-talkies that use the same radio and frequency. Now we can connect to each other. But if we don’t speak the same language, we can’t really do anything interesting together. Only with a common language can we work together to do valuable things, even if we’re from different places and have never met before.
We use the terms “common language” or “universal language” (or sometimes the more technical “application layer”) to describe Dotdot. What this really means is that Dotdot is a standardized set of device definitions, behaviors, and security models. For instance, it defines how a light bulb joins a network, how it communicates whether it’s on or off, what brightness or colour it’s set at, and how other devices or apps can adjust those settings. This enables devices to work together whether they come from the same manufacturer or many different ones.
Getting more technical, Dotdot is based on what you may know as the “Zigbee Cluster Library” (or ZCL). This is the application layer that has been an integral part of Zigbee. This is the common language that already enables interoperability amongst millions of devices working together in homes and businesses, from major companies including Philips Hue, Comcast, Samsung SmartThings, IKEA, OSRAM, Kwikset, Belkin, GE, Yale, Amazon Echo, ADT and others.
The ZCL was originally developed to enable Zigbee devices to talk to each other, improve interoperability and scale, and thus increase the adoption of Zigbee’s wireless technology. Dotdot is a framework for implementing the ZCL over other networks, and a new brand name to identify it in a more user-friendly and network-agnostic way.
Thread, for its part, is an implementation of the same IP technology that drives every Internet-connected device you’ve ever used, but designed specifically for IoT devices. Just as Wi-Fi was designed for local, high-bandwidth devices, or 4G for mobile data, Thread was purpose-built to support reliable networking for the kinds of low-power, battery-operated, widely distributed devices that make up most Smart Home or commercial IoT applications. Thread enables these types of devices to connect directly to the Internet.
Together, Dotdot + Thread is the first solution that implements an open, interoperable device language running over an Internet (IP)- based network.
Just as open, universal protocols like HTTP over IP unlocked and accelerated innovation on the Internet, Dotdot’s common device language over Thread’s IP network brings this foundation for innovation to the Internet of Things.
Dotdot + Thread is not another new standard
If you’re in any way involved in standards, you’ve probably seen this XKCD comic before:
Nowhere have I seen this cited more than in IoT discussions. It seems every other month, there is some new standard or consortium. But new standards take years to mature, to become reliable, to develop a robust supply chain, and to proliferate. For product managers looking to create products and platforms that will need to be maintained in users’ homes for years, new standards represent risk.
Dotdot over Thread is not another new standard. They may be new brands and even new packages, but inside are two of the most robust, widely deployed, well-known, and well-supported connectivity and interoperability technologies. These are technologies that drive billions of products and networks already in our homes and offices, now extended to the IoT.
As the foundation of the internet, IP will continue to be supported well into the future. Choosing Thread and IP means your device will always have a network to connect to.
Dotdot has been developed by the Zigbee Alliance — an open, global, non-profit organization. It continues to be driven by member companies at every level of the market, and anyone has an opportunity to bring innovations to the table.
All this means both Dotdot and Thread already have global, competitive supply chains with multiple vendors at every level, and experts (like my company, MMB Networks) with years of experience deploying these technologies in the real world and at scale. This solid foundation is why major product and platform vendors in both organizations are already building products with Dotdot + Thread.
So, Dotdot + Thread is a great platform to build on from a product management standpoint. But what new value does it bring to the table? In part two, we’ll get into specific use cases and how Dotdot + Thread not only solves the walled garden problem, but drives value for every stakeholder in the IoT.