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Project CHIP embraces a timeline and the blockchain

Project Connected Home over IP, a unifying standard for the smart home will begin formal device certification in late 2021, and the standard will prioritize connectivity using Wi-Fi, Thread, and Ethernet. Plus, in a surprise move, the standard will include a blockchain element for device certification and security.

The news from the Project CHIP working group has come in slow drips and drabs since its initial launch in Dec. 2019, when the major players in the smart home ecosystem said they were working on an interoperable smart home standard. At the time, the launch was expected at the end of 2020, but with a pandemic and large companies like Apple, Samsung, Google, and Amazon all working together, that timeline was destined to stray.

But in a virtual event Tuesday hosted by the Zigbee Alliance, which hosts the CHIP working group, members from Apple, SmartThings, Infineon, Tuya, Comcast, Google, and more shared a bunch of details about how the new standard would handle networking, device models, existing gear, security and what devices we can expect to see certified first.

Wait, what is CHIP?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s do a refresher on CHIP. The standard was developed because the smart home wasn’t working, and consumers and manufacturers were frustrated. Essentially a range of standards and a lack of interoperability between devices meant that consumers were focused on whether their thermostat would work with the light switches or if their phone would talk to their door locks. Everything had an app, and APIs would change, which would break existing smart home setups. It sucked.

CHIP was formed to change that by creating an IP-based interoperability layer between devices at the application layer. Most smart home devices might interoperate at the networking layer (this is where protocols like Z-wave or Zigbee come in). Still, even network compatibility didn’t mean a light bulb could communicate with a light switch or a security sensor would communicate with a different platform. CHIP would create a standardized data model for devices so a certified product could communicate what it is and what it can do to other CHIP products.

For consumers, this means we could build a smart home that just works, and for developers and manufacturers, it means that you could build to that standard. Developers could avoid building specifically for Alexa or Google’s ecosystem, and manufacturers wouldn’t have to have multiple product lines with different radios. How far this actually goes, though, is still unclear. We’ll get to that in a bit.

So what’s new?

Today we learned a lot. Specifically, we know that the 180 member companies (there were 170 at the beginning of the year) are hosting certification testing events that will run through September and that the companies who participate in those events will likely be the first to get their products certified in “late 2021.” This means we’ll likely see CHIP-certified devices in time for the holidays. The panelists also confirmed that CHIP devices will use Wi-Fi for high bandwidth applications and Thread for low bandwidth applications. The standard will also use Bluetooth Low Energy for device provisioning, which is a nice win for BLE because those radios will still be inside most smart home devices. That makes sense given that provisioning is likely to happen in most homes using a mobile handset.

We didn’t hear anything about the provisioning process, although I suspect it will look similar to Kevin’s experience in adding Eve’s or Logitech’s HomeKit devices to his network. Those required a simple scan of a QR code.

As for devices, lighting, blinds, HVAC, TVs, access controls, safety & security products, access points, smart home controllers, and bridges will be the first supported products. CHIP is using the data models from the Zigbee Alliance’s forgotten dotdot protocol from 2017 to build those models. There are working groups focused on other devices as well, but only the above list will be supported at launch. As for how those devices will communicate in the home, the network topology (seen below) uses a controller and bridges to mediate between Thread and Wi-Fi in the home with the ability for devices to also communicate back to the cloud if necessary. Note that device-to-cloud communication won’t happen using CHIP which means you’re still going to need an app to set up certain integrations.

It really looks like local control is an option here for many devices. Additionally, cloud-to-cloud communication will be possible (although not using CHIP). We explained how the Thread side of this will work in this post. Based on the network diagram, which shows phones, an Echo, a smart display, and what looks to be a Philips Hue bridge, those devices will connect using Wi-Fi and aren’t speaking directly to the Thread network. However, if those devices have Thread radios in them, I expect that will change.

As for older and existing network devices, the plan is that manufacturers can add CHIP support with a bridge device. If there is enough memory and the device has the right radios on the bridge, then that update might be a simple over-the-air software update. Otherwise, you may have to buy a new CHIP-certified bridge. For everyone wondering about your old Z-wave or Zigbee devices, you should hope that the manufacturer puts out a bridge device so you can keep all of your existing sensors and light bulbs. If you don’t have any Z-wave and Zigbee devices, I think you should wait for Thread-capable sensors or ensure the manufacturer is participating in Project CHIP. (The older your device, the less likely it is to get an update, though.)

And while CHIP works day over Thread, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet, Mark Tekippe from SmartThings said that CHIP might also work over cellular or other protocols in the future. For my money, the protocol to watch would be LoRa or Amazon’s Sidewalk protocol that offers long-range connectivity at low power, which would open up outdoor sensors for the smart home.

There was another tidbit mentioned on certification. It sounds like if you get your device certified by CHIP, you’ll still need a Thread or Wi-Fi certification, according to Naveen Kommareddi Chair, Ecosystem Strategy & Certification of CHIP.

Here’s the bit about security and the blockchain

Now let’s talk about security! I’m really excited here because device security is a huge issue for IoT, and most consumers aren’t really able to parse the existing best practices to understand if a device is “secure” or not. By combining security with the CHIP certification, we get a good baseline for the smart home. CHIP will require AES 128-bit encryption of data between devices, and between devices and the cloud, which is decent (especially when we’re talking about super-constrained devices such as sensors). The focus will be on security by design, which means that manufacturers and developers need to focus on security from the get-go instead of adding it later.

CHIP will also require over-the-air updates for software and firmware, which means as new vulnerabilities are discovered, manufacturers will have a way to address them. And when it comes to figuring out if a manufacturer has addressed those security updates, CHIP offers something new. Asad Haque, a member of the Project CHIP working group and an employee of Comcast, says CHIP will use blockchain technology to certify the device’s provenance. I know this sounds like a gimmick, but where we’re talking about what may be a hundred or more devices in a home, having a way to authenticate and track the security of a connected device programmatically is important.

This is not a cryptocurrency use for the blockchain but a way to authenticate and track a device at scale. Haque says anyone can read a product ID and vendor ID on a device and check if it exists in what he called the CHIP Compliance Ledger. This means manufacturers can update metadata about the device, such as update a URL where the updates will be found, and more. This ledger will let anyone read it and figure out if the device is certified and has implemented necessary security updates.

I’m really intrigued by this model and can’t wait to understand more about the implications and how it is implemented, especially on smaller, battery-powered devices.

So what don’t we know?

While we did get a ton of new news and information today, there are still plenty of lingering questions. Many people wanted to know how companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon would implement CHIP in their device ecosystems. Kevin Po, from Google, said that we can expect to hear more on that later this year as those companies start certifying their devices. We also don’t really know the role that apps and phones will play in the CHIP ecosystem. For example, if a phone isn’t CHIP-certified, it can’t act as a controller (this makes sense given that phones leave the home) and opens up questions about how much you might be able to control from a phone or an app on the phone. This is especially relevant for something like Apple’s Home app.

On the app side, it’s also unclear if users will need to download an app for every product they bring into the home. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to, but I expect that’s not going to fly for device makers hungry for some sort of relationship with the user and their data. Linked to this is a question about what devices will act as the brains for a smart home and whether or not a home can support multiple brains. For people who have multiple digital assistants in a home, how might that work? And for people who have multiple different smartphones in a home, how might those tie into a CHIP ecosystem?

Where was Amazon? This panel had 10 people on it, so there was no shortage of representation from large players in the smart home. Even Apple had someone there. So the fact that no one from Amazon participated was a bit of a shock to me since it is one of the founding members.

And finally, I was hoping for news on the CHIP brand. Originally the idea was to build out a new brand for Project CHIP, which is a bit of a mouthful, but as time goes on and we spend more time talking about CHIP, I wonder if that will still happen. Related to this branding shift is how long the Zigbee Alliance considers CHIP part of a working group instead of the primary protocol promoted by the Alliance. When CHIP surpasses Zigbee (and if it succeeds, it will), the Alliance should probably rebrand.

All in all, today’s panel has me optimistic about Project CHIP, even if the implementation is further out than I’d like. The delays have meant many companies are trying to launch products that will be compatible when CHIP comes out, while others are waiting to launch their new smart home devices. I’m also a bit disappointed that data models for big appliances and wearables aren’t part of the standard. Connecting appliances will help us reduce energy usage, while wearables will let us better connect our homes to us. If we don’t get data models for something like wearables, it just means that the walled garden will separate individuals and their health data from their homes, which would be a shame.

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