Apple, Amazon, and Google’s Thread border routers can now coexist on a single Thread network

Apple, Amazon, and Google’s Thread border routers can now coexist on a single Thread network

Matter is getting closer. The new smart home standard promising to make setting up a smart home as easy as screwing in a lightbulb took a big step toward that lofty goal this week. Thread, the main wireless protocol Matter will run on alongside Wi-Fi, just dropped a major upgrade. Thread 1.3.0 will enable Thread devices to work with any Thread border router, removing the current manufacturer-specific roadblocks. It also sets the stage for Thread-enabled Matter devices — which should start arriving later this year — to join existing Thread networks using those border routers.

If you have any of these devices in your home today, you are in luck. Once upgraded by the manufacturer, they can become a Thread 1.3.0 border router. This will allow you to add any Thread device to your home without buying any additional hardware.

  • Nest Hub Max smart display
  • Nest Hub (second gen) smart display
  • Nest Wifi mesh router
  • Apple TV 4K
  • Apple HomePod Mini
  • Echo (fourth gen) smart speaker
  • Nanoleaf Shapes, Elements, and Lines LED light panels
  • All Wi-Fi 6 and up Eero mesh routers

While there may be more options as Matter gets closer (a Thread border router can be built into almost any device with an always-on power source and an internet connection), the manufacturers of these products have publicly committed to making them Thread border routers when Matter arrives.

In the case of the Apple, Eero, and Nanoleaf devices, they’re already operating as border routers. The Thread 1.3.0 specification / certification is backward-compatible with previous versions. “From a technical perspective, anything that is currently running as a Thread border router can be updated,” Jonathan Hui, VP of technology for the Thread Group and a principal software engineer at Google Nest, told The Verge in an interview.

Currently, if you own a Thread-enabled device, such as a Nanoleaf Essential lightbulb 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 — such as a HomePod Mini or an Eero 6 Wi-Fi router — can’t talk to each other. If you have two border routers from two different companies, you are running two separate Thread networks. This defeats the main purpose of Thread: creating one self-healing mesh network that continues to run even if one device fails.

With the release of the Thread 1.3.0 specification, the Thread border router function is being standardized. This means no more competing Thread networks; border routers from different manufacturers will join the same Thread network seamlessly. “Thread 1.3.0 makes the border router appear on the Wi-Fi [network] like any other Wi-Fi device, allowing any existing device on the Wi-Fi network to interact with those Thread devices without requiring any special software,” explains Hui.

This network topology illustrates how a Thread border router will work in a smart home with Matter devices.
Image: Thread Group

Thread 1.3.0 also enables 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 — could quickly pick up every Matter device on a Thread network, enabling a simple setup similar to how Apple’s HomeKit works today. “It’s utilizing the exact same technology that HomeKit leverages, the same technology that’s been used all the way back to 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, shades, 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 the ecosystems, should you want to.

Google has committed to making the Thread-enabled Nest Hub Max a Thread border router.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The Thread Group is an industry collaboration backed 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-power, low-latency wireless protocol, Thread creates a self-healing mesh network built on proactive routing, meaning devices talk directly to each other to find the most efficient path to take. This is why a Thread-enabled lightbulb will turn on in a fraction of a second compared to a Bluetooth bulb that can take several seconds to receive the command.

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

But border routers differ from the hubs and bridges we know and loathe today. First, border 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 make dedicated hubs and bridges. This means fewer white boxes hanging off of your router. Second, a border router doesn’t see the conversations your devices are having (all communications are end-to-end encrypted); it just passes them on. And third, with this new 1.3.0 release, any Thread device can connect to any Thread border router regardless of the manufacturer. This means that one Thread border router could connect all your Thread-enabled accessories.

But this is only of any use if people have border routers in their homes, something that has kept the protocol, first developed in 2015, from really taking off. “The lack of border routers in the market created this chicken and egg problem where product vendors saw the value in Thread but had a hard time understanding how they could get Thread devices in the market without those border routers being available,” says Hui. 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 devices at the same time 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. Now that’s what I call progress.

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