HomePod Mini, Echo, Nest Hub: Working on a single Thread network

The HomePod Mini thread border router, with the release of the new Thread specification, border routers from various manufacturers can now be part of a single Thread network.

The Matter is getting closer. The new intelligent home standard promising to make setting up a smart home as comfortable as screwing in a lightbulb took a significant step toward that lofty goal this week.

Thread, the primary wireless protocol Matter will run on alongside Wi-Fi, just dropped a considerable upgrade. Thread 1.3.0 will allow Thread devices to operate with any Thread border router, clearing the current manufacturer-specific roadblocks. It also forms the stage for Thread-enabled Matter devices — which should begin this year — to join existing Thread networks using border routers.

You are lucky to have any of these gadgets in your home today. However, once the manufacturer upgrades, they can become a Thread 1.3.0 border router. It will permit you to add any Thread device to your home without purchasing additional hardware.

Currently, suppose you own a Thread-enabled device, such as a Nanoleaf Essential lightbulb or an intelligent Energy Eve plug. In that case, it can connect to a Thread border router to talk to other devices on your home network beyond, thanks to Thread’s IP-based makeup. But today, border routers from additional manufacturers — like a HomePod Mini or an Eero 6 Wi-Fi router — can’t speak to each other.

As a result, you are driving two distinct Thread networks if you have two border routers from two companies. Furthermore, it overpowers the primary objective of Thread: creating one self-healing mesh network that persists in running even if one device fails.

The Thread border router process is being standardized with the release of the Thread 1.3.0 specification. It means no competing Thread networks; border routers from different manufacturers will seamlessly join the same Thread network.

“Thread 1.3.0 completes the border router occur on the Wi-Fi [network] like any other Wi-Fi device, letting any existing device on the Wi-Fi network interact with those Thread devices without requiring any special software,” describes Hui.

Thread 1.3.0 also allows Matter-over-Thread devices to join a Thread network quickly. So, for example, a Matter controller app on a smartphone — such as the Google Home app — could soon pick up every Matter device on a Thread network, allowing a simple setup comparable to how Apple’s HomeKit functions today.

“It’s employing the same technology that HomeKit leverages, the same technology that’s been used back to locate printers on your network that you want to add to your computer,” says Hui. “It’s all the same underlying protocols — DNS, Bonjour. Now, we’re just extending that to Thread.”

Once compatible lights, locks, shades, or sensors are on the Thread network, they can be controlled by a Matter controller from any consistent ecosystem. For example, it includes Apple’s HomeKit, Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, or Samsung’s SmartThings. In addition, thanks to Matter’s multi-admin control feature, you can add your devices to all the ecosystems, should you want to.

The Thread Group is an enterprise collaboration backed by Amazon, Samsung SmartThings, Google, Apple, and others to develop the low-power wireless networking protocol, especially for the smart home and connected gadgets.

Thread makes a self-healing mesh network built on proactive routing, a low-power, low-latency wireless protocol, indicating that devices talk directly to each other to discover the most efficient path. It is why a Thread-enabled lightbulb will turn on in a fraction of a second, corresponding to a Bluetooth bulb that can handle several seconds to accept the command.

While Thread networks don’t require a central hub or bridge like low-powered mesh protocols Z-Wave and Zigbee, they need at least one Thread border router. It works like a bridge or crossing, connecting devices to your home network and the internet. When Matter arrives, it will also link them to Matter controllers — which could be a Thread border router (like the HomePod Mini) or could be your smartphone running the Google Home app.

But border routers vary from the hubs and bridges we know and loathe today. First, border router technology can be assembled into devices such as smart speakers, Wi-Fi routers, or even stylish light fixtures, so manufacturers do not need to make dedicated hubs and bridges. It means fewer white boxes are turning off your router.

Second, a border router doesn’t notice your devices’ conversations; it just gives them on. And third, with this latest 1.3.0 release, any Thread device can link to any Thread border router regardless of the manufacturer. It means that one Thread border router could combine all your Thread-enabled accessories.

But this is only for any user if people have border routers in their homes, something that has held the protocol, first developed in 2015, from actually taking off. “The absence of border routers in the market produced this chicken and egg problem where product dealers saw the value in Thread but had a tough time understanding how they could bring Thread devices in the market without those border routers being open,” says Hui.

So this latest iteration of Thread standardizes border routers so that companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google can produce them in a way that device vendors can rely on. “Just like we rely on Wi-Fi today,” says Hui.

The other feature coming with Thread 1.3.0 is streamlined over-the-air updates. The new specification requires devices to use the Transmission Control Protocol standard for updating firmware on Thread-enabled devices. “You can update all of the gadgets simultaneously without affecting the performance of the network because it’s on TCP,” says Hui.

He also confirmed this could allow for remote updates, which means no more standing next to your door sensor holding your phone up to the sky to get that firmware upgrade to download.