Matter is approaching. The new smart home standard that promises to make setting up a smart home as easy as screwing in a light bulb took a big step towards that lofty goal this week. Thread, the main wireless protocol that Matter will run alongside Wi-Fi, has just released a major update. Thread 1.3.0 will allow Thread devices to work with any Thread edge router, removing current manufacturer-specific locks. It also sets the stage for Thread-enabled Matter devices – which are expected to start arriving later this year – to join existing Thread networks using these border routers.
If you have any of these devices in your house today, you’re in luck. Once updated by the manufacturer, they can become a Thread 1.3.0 Edge Router. This will allow you to add any Thread device to your home without purchasing any additional hardware.
- Nest Hub Max smart display
- Nest Hub Smart Display (second generation)
- Nest Wifi Mesh Router
- Apple TV 4K (second generation)
- Apple HomePod Mini
- Echo smart speaker (fourth generation)
- Nanoleaf Shapes, Elements and Lines LED Light Panels
- All Eero Wi-Fi 6 and higher mesh routers
While there may be more options as the matter gets closer (a threaded edge router can be integrated into almost any device with an always-on power supply and an internet connection), the makers of these products have publicly committed to making it the thread edge routers when Matter arrives.
In the case of Apple, Eero and Nanoleaf devices, they are already operating as border routers. Thread 1.3.0 specification/certification is backwards compatible. “From a technical standpoint, anything that is currently running as a Thread border router can be upgraded,” said Jonathan Hui, vice president of technology at the Thread Group and principal software engineer at Google Nest. On the edge in an interview.
Currently, if you have a Thread-enabled device like a Nanoleaf Essential lamp or an Eve Energy smart plug (see a full list here), it can connect to a Thread border router to talk to other devices on your home network and beyond. thanks to Thread’s IP-based makeup. But today, border routers from different manufacturers – like a HomePod Mini or an Eero 6 Wi-Fi router – can’t communicate. If you have two edge routers from two different companies, you are running two separate Thread networks. This defeats the primary purpose of Thread: to create a self-healing mesh network that continues to run even if a device fails.
With the release of the Thread 1.3.0 specification, the Thread border router function is being standardized. This means that there are no more competing Thread networks; Edge routers from different manufacturers will join the same Thread network without any problems. “Thread 1.3.0 causes edge router to appear on Wi-Fi [network] like any other Wi-Fi device, allowing any device on the Wi-Fi network to interact with these Thread devices without requiring any special software,” explains Hui.
Thread 1.3.0 also allows Matter-over-Thread devices to easily join a Thread network. For example, a Matter controller app on a smartphone – such as the Google Home app – can quickly capture all Matter devices on a Thread network, allowing for simple setup similar to how Apple’s HomeKit works today. “It’s using exactly the same technology that HomeKit uses, the same technology used since discovering printers on your network that you want to add to your computer,” says Hui. “It’s all the same underlying protocols – mDNS, Bonjour. Now, we’re just extending that to Thread.”
Once your compatible lights, locks, blinds or sensors are on the Thread network, they can be controlled by a Matter controller from any compatible ecosystem. This includes Apple’s HomeKit, Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa or Samsung’s SmartThings. Thanks to Matter’s multi-admin control feature, you can add your devices to all ecosystems if you wish.
The Thread Group is an industry collaboration supported by Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung SmartThings and others to develop the low-power wireless networking protocol specifically for the smart home and connected devices.
A low-latency, low-power wireless protocol, Thread creates a self-healing mesh network built on proactive routing, which means devices talk directly to each other to find the most efficient path forward. That’s why a Thread-enabled lamp lights up in a split second compared to a Bluetooth lamp that can take several seconds to receive the command.
While Thread networks do not need a central hub or bridge like the Z-Wave and Zigbee low-power mesh protocols, they do require at least one Thread Edge Router. This works similarly to a bridge or hub, connecting devices to your home network and the internet. When Matter arrives, it will also connect them to Matter controllers – which could be a threaded edge router (like the HomePod Mini) or your smartphone running the Google Home app.
But border routers differ from the hubs and bridges we know and hate today. First, edge router technology can be built into existing devices such as smart speakers, Wi-Fi routers, or even smart light fixtures, so there’s no need for manufacturers to build dedicated hubs and bridges. That means fewer white boxes hanging on the router. Second, an edge router doesn’t see the conversations your devices are having (all communications are end-to-end encrypted); it just transmits them. And third, with this new version 1.3.0, any Thread device can connect to any Thread Edge Router, regardless of manufacturer. This means that a Thread Edge Router can connect all your Thread-enabled accessories.
But that’s only useful if people have border routers in their homes, something that kept the protocol, first developed in 2015, from really taking off. “The lack of border routers on the market created this chicken and egg problem where product vendors saw the value of Thread but had a hard time understanding how they could get Thread devices on the market without these border routers being available.” says Hui. This latest iteration of Thread standardizes border routers so companies like Apple, Amazon and Google can produce them in a way that device vendors can trust. “Just as we depend on Wi-Fi today,” says Hui.
The other feature that comes with Thread 1.3.0 is simplified over-the-air updates. The new specification requires devices to use the Transmission Control Protocol standard to update firmware on Thread-enabled devices. “You can update all devices at the same time without affecting network performance because it’s on TCP,” says Hui. He also confirmed that this can enable remote updates, meaning you no longer have to stand next to the door sensor holding your phone in the sky to download the firmware update. Now this is what I call progress.
Update, Friday, July 22, 12:44 pm: Clarified that it is the second generation model of Apple TV 4K that can act as a thread edge router. The first generation has no Thread.