ULP Wireless Update

The battle for the smart home has begun

The battle for the smart home has begun

Neither developers nor consumers look likely to settle on a single wireless protocol for home automation applications any time soon

While Bluetooth wireless’ brand is healthier than ever, competition for the smart home sector is heating up as other wireless technologies vie for mind- and market-share with both developers and consumers alike

The strength of a brand is a nebulous concept, but that doesn’t stop marketers attempting to gauge market awareness, familiarity, leadership, uniqueness, clarity of message, purchasing influence, and consumer loyalty to steer its development.


Last year, for example, Canadian market research analyst, Lux Insights, conducted the Bluetooth® brand equity study, surveying consumers between the ages of 18 and 70 with the three-pronged aim: Identifying how consumer perception of Bluetooth technology has changed in recent years; benchmarking Bluetooth against competing wireless technologies; and identifying opportunities for growth. The top line results paint a rosy picture of consumer awareness and usage of Bluetooth technology. According to the research, 92 percent of respondents were aware of the wireless technology, while better still, 78 percent of those people were actually using it. Only Wi-Fi polled better, while competing technologies such as Thread, Near Field Communication (NFC), ANT, Z-Wave, zigbee, and AllJoyn all have some way to go to claim anywhere near a similar stake of consumer mindshare.


While the current landscape for Bluetooth technology is encouraging—predictably outperforming alternative wireless technologies in its traditional stronghold market segments of wearables, audio equipment, and automotive—more informing is the road ahead. According to the research, the biggest opportunities for Bluetooth technology lie in home automation, location-based services, personal monitoring and tracking, and remote access control.


Consumers, it seems, see the future power of Bluetooth wireless formed by the additional control and insight it can offer them, be that via location awareness applications, personal health and wellness data monitoring, or perhaps most importantly, in home automation control. Most importantly because the “smart home” sector is set to be a $53.45 billion market by 2022, according to analyst statista. And most importantly because several low power wireless protocols are already going head-to-head for dominance in this relatively nascent sector ahead of the real boom.


Bluetooth of course has one key advantage—its omnipresence in smartphones. The smartphone with its rich user interface is almost certainly the easiest way for consumers to interact with home automation devices, and Bluetooth’s interoperability with smartphones means it will likely always have a strong hold in this market, even if it’s in parallel with one, or multiple other, protocols. The smartphone is king, and if you’re not there, you’re nowhere.


That said, while Lux Insights’ research clearly indicates consumer awareness of the likes of Thread, Z-Wave, and zigbee is currently nowhere near that of either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, each has vociferous evangelists in the home-automation space. That the legacy technologies of Z-Wave and zigbee have struggled for cut through with consumers despite their longevity is perhaps telling, but the emergence of Thread is a different matter. According to the research while only seven percent of respondents were currently aware of Thread, a third of that seven percent have used, or are using, Thread-based solutions, an impressive number by comparison to its alternatives. Moreover, it rates highly in terms of constant improvement, security, and future potential amongst its followers.


Complementary protocols influence strategy

Thread’s emergence has added a further alternative to a crowded market, and which protocol (or more likely complementary protocols) smart home solution developers ultimately converge on is both unclear and fluid. This situation has formed part of Nordic Semiconductor’s own product strategy.


For example, late last year Nordic unveiled its advanced nRF52840 System-on-Chip (SoC), not only offering Bluetooth 5 support, but also ANT and IEEE 802.15.4 capability. IEEE 802.15.4 is the foundation technology behind both Thread and zigbee. The Bluetooth 5-certified SoC was Thread-certified in September 2017, providing developers with access to a powerful, single-chip Thread and Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) wireless connectivity solution.


Better yet, as Director of Strategy and Investor Relations Thomas Embla Bonnerud outlined at Nordic’s recent Q3 Investor Presentation, Nordic is the first company to market with a true multiprotocol solution offering true concurrent operation for Bluetooth LE and Thread, ideal for developers targeting the smart home—including those working on mesh networked products—where multiple protocols could well prevail.


“We are expanding our addressable market adding Thread [and] focusing on advanced mesh for smart home and industrial enterprise networks,” Bonnerud told attendees at the investor event. “We believe [the nRF52840 SoC’s] multiprotocol support gives us a competitive edge and value add. It is valuable for legacy support, but also for people who want to build heterogeneous ecosystems, who want to take advantage of multiple different protocols in the same network.”


Given neither developers nor consumers look likely to settle on a single wireless protocol for home automation applications any time soon, Nordic’s backing of both Bluetooth LE and Thread appears shrewd. Which protocol will dominate remains unclear, but what’s more certain is that home automation will remain at the front line of the battle for low power wireless technology domination.


The Lux Insights report is available from www.bluetooth.com.