Google's Nest weaves new Weave protocol that isn't Google's Weave

An Internet of Stuff comms tech to kill Apple's still-born Homekit?


Smart-home posterboy Nest has opened up its application protocol to developers in a bid to stave off competition from Apple.

The "Weave" protocol – not to be confused with Google's Weave program – will remain proprietary for the time being, and allows products to communicate peer-to-peer and without requiring an internet connection.

Under plans announced Thursday, any developer can apply to have access to the protocol, for free. "We're opening up to developer feedback," the head of its Works with Nest program, Greg Hu, told The Register.

Weave was designed by Nest when the company first started building its now-famous round thermostat. Weave provides a secure, low-power mesh at the application layer to enable one product to interact with and trigger actions in others (think a smoke alarm telling a thermostat to stop running an HVAC fan to slow the spread of fire).

The focus is on "secure." There are several standards and protocols designed to enable multiple diverse products in the "internet of things" to communicate with one another. There is Zigbee and Z-Wave, Bluetooth and WiFi.

Balance

But the balance between low power, low latency, and high security has been hard to find. "We look at pretty much everything on an ongoing basis," Hu told us. "If there was one that met our needs, we would have used it."

At the moment, most smart home products work relatively well, typically using Bluetooth to connect your phones to products, or more often using your wireless network and a hub to feed information back and forth between you and the product. But that approach is slow and heavy, especially when trying to get multiple different products talking to one another. And very far from satisfying.

This is a problem that led to Apple insisting on proprietary authentication technology being added to every product that wishes to work with its HomeKit system. But Nest claims it has a found a way to provide the necessary level of security through software, so existing products will be able to work with the Weave protocol through no more than a software update starting in early 2016. It claims latency of just 100ms, providing instant responses.

Hu wouldn't be drawn out on why Nest felt it had found a solution that has eluded Apple, but he did tell us: "First and foremost, we have always been focused on making tech for the home. Other protocols have relied on network security for their communications but we have put security at the application layer and Weave sits on top of the security provided by Thread [Google's IoT networking protocol]. The protocol is also specific to particular applications."

What that means is that while your refrigerator could theoretically start talking to your doorlock, it wouldn't be able to pull any data from it unless the customer specifically approved it.

"We've always been very transparent about the interactions [between products]," said Hu. "You are in charge as the customer. And how that works is that the user is represented with a use case and asks you if you want to authorize that."

Pairing

The security focal point is on the pairing process. The process needs to be as simple as possible, but ensure that only an authorized person (that would be you) is able to add a new product to the eco-system.

"We have improved this process over several generations of products," Hu argues, "and it is now very secure. What people see with third-party products will be almost identical to how Nest products connect to one another."

Why open up Weave now? Hu says that the intent was never to keep the protocol to Nest only, but that now the company felt the tech was "ready for third parties."

As to whether Nest will eventually move Weave to open source, the company demurs in the same way it did when we asked it last year whether it would give developers direct access to the protocol rather than send it through its cloud API. "We'll see what happens," said Hu. "To question whether it will be open sourced is premature at this point. First we want to release it, open it up, take in feedback and then figure out what to do later on."

Which Weave?

As to the question of why Nest used the exact same name as parent company Google did when it announced its internet of things standards, they are less clear.

"Nest Weave is our application protocol that works at the application layer," Hu said. "Whereas Google uses 'Weave' for their overall program. For them, 'Weave' represents working across a broader space but for us, it is just inside the home."

Why not call it something else entirely? "Well, 'Weave' sits over 'Thread' and so that makes sense for us. We've also been using the word for five years."

It's just the latest example of the slightly unusual relationship that Nest shares with Google, which bought the company for $3.2bn in February last year. When Nest showed off its latest products earlier this year, it did it using iPhones, rather than Android phones. And when we asked Nest executives whether they would start using Google's IoT-specific operating system Brillo in their products, they made it plain they preferred to use their own system.

Nevertheless, the decision to open up Weave demonstrates that Nest continues to lead and innovate in a market that has yet to take off, but does have analysts waving around wild figures. With Apple still behind on its HomeKit rollout plans, it could prove to be a market-changing decision. ®

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