Google’s Nest open sources OpenThread to snag more IoT partners, take on Amazon

Earlier this year, a report in The Information claimed that Google-owned Nest was working on a rival to Amazon’s Echo — a service that would bring together a number of other connected devices and services to help people organise and manage their homes alongside Nest’s own thermostats and other products. Now it appears that some of these developments are coming to pass. Today, Nest announced OpenThread, an open source-based code implementation of the technology that Nest has developed for its own products.

OpenThread is Nest’s customised version of Thread, a wireless networking protocol for connected objects in the home that Nest and partners like Samsung and Qualcomm first announced in 2014, with the rationale at the time being that existing protocols like WiFi and Bluetooth were not up to scratch. Thread is a low-power mesh network protocol that IPv6 and is built on the same radio hardware used by ZigBee devices. Nest says that this potentially opens up the tech to “millions of existing devices on the market” — if their makers choose to update to Thread, that is.

In reality, the company is not revealing any hard numbers for thread converts. Greg Hu tells me that “Thread momentum has been fantastic and you will see a lot more products shipped this year,” Greg Hu, head of Nest Platform and Works with Nest, told me in an interview. He added that the OpenThread effort was also aimed at encourage more chipmakers to come on board. “We are also trying to get more silicon partners to take our version of Thread and add it to their chips and push it forward.”

The other main thing is interoperability. “When it comes to OpenThread, we see it as one of the core products, a fundamental building block, for the connected, conscious home,” Hu said. “It will improve interoperabilty between products dramatically. It will drive the connected home for a lot of consumers.”

Launching OpenThread gives Nest a shot at offering code and a potential platform for free (following a road taken by stablemate Android) as a way of bring in more hardware and software developers to build products that can work in a Nest-led ecosystem. Hu said that the intention was always to open source its efforts. “We wanted to make sure the tech was far enough along to be valuable for partners,” he said. “The intention was always to open source it.”

The developments from Google and Nest come at an interesting time in the wider market for Internet of Things and connected home services.

Amazon has had a surprise success with Echo, its wireless speaker that works by voice command. One of the most exciting things about it has been its nearly seamless transformation into becoming a platform for controlling other services, just by walking: third-party developers from Spotify to Domino’s have created services that you can use through Echo.

Google, it seems, has sat up and taken notice of this. Earlier this year, the company opened up its Speech Recognition API as step one in getting developers to start putting more voice commands into their services. And now the OpenThread announcement today points to how it hopes to widen that platform to include hardware, too. 

But the news also comes at a tricky time for Nest — which one of my more poetic colleagues who shall remain unnamed likes to refer to as a garbage fire.

The company has reportedly failed to reach sales targets, and has been slammed for having a problematic work culture. And among the departures from the company, one that hasn’t been reported is that Chris Boross, the Nest executive who served as president of the Thread Group, quietly left the company earlier this year and now works at Eero.

The open-sourcing move, in that sense, could also be a sign of how Nest is changing its bigger outlook at what kind of role it can and should play in its wider connected home ambitions.

Another interesting detail is the changing dynamics of the Thread Group itself. When it launched, Samsung had equal billing with Nest among the initial group of companies that supported the new protocol. Today, it’s mentioned only as a backer of the wider group, but it is not mentioned in the group that is “contributing to the ongoing development of OpenThread.” That list is Nest, ARM, Atmel (a subsidiary of Microchip Technology), Dialog Semiconductor, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., and Texas Instruments.

Why? Samsung, of course, appears to be trying to forge its own play at building an ecosystem by way of Artik, which only last month announced commercial availability of the IoT platform. Hu tells me that while they are still actively involved in Thread this is because of the focus today being on silicon partners. “No change from the core Thread Group mission,” Hu said.