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On December 18, a consortium including Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance announced the formation of a new working group to address application-layer interoperability in the smart home.  

The Connected Home over IP (CHIP) project will be operated as a working group under the auspices of the Zigbee Alliance, borrowing the Alliance’s organization and infrastructure. The goal of CHIP is to create an application-layer interoperability protocol built on top of existing native-IP connectivity standards, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Thread. 

We believe this is a very positive and necessary step for the smart home market as it attempts to cross over from the early-adopter demographic to the mainstream consumer market. While we do not know what the final standard will look like, we hope that at the very least, CHIP will enable OEMs to easily make products that work in every major ecosystem and that consumers need not be concerned about interoperability when making purchases. It is even possible that CHIP may blur the lines between ecosystems to such a degree that they become unimportant. Devices will not just work, they will work together across ecosystem boundaries. 

The structure of CHIP is surprisingly democratic. The group will borrow structure from the Zigbee Alliance, a neutral party. Each member company will have one vote on CHIP decisions, so Amazon, Apple, and Google will each have one vote—the same as that of the smaller companies involved in the working group. While we expect the three headline companies to have outsized influence due to their positions of leadership, such as working group chairs, they will not be able to dictate CHIP decisions through voting. This should ensure that smaller companies will have their voices heard. We’ve been told that Amazon, Apple, and Google are sensitive to the notion that working together could be perceived as an effort to collude on market outcomes, a form of price fixing. To avoid these perceptions, CHIP is structured to be as open, inclusive, and democratic as possible. 

One point of potential disagreement within CHIP strikes at the very premise of the group: the use of end-to-end IP within the smart home. IP is a simple, yet powerful transport layer that could tie together smart home ecosystems with existing mobile and IT ecosystems which already use IP. The use of IP enables the reuse of assets from these other markets: code, applications, developers, tools, and semiconductors. Having participated in the mobile and IT markets prior to entering the smart home space, Amazon, Apple, and Google are all very comfortable with IP and hope to leverage their prior work as much as possible in the new smart home. 

However, while legacy smart home OEMs seem to be generally in favor of IP for the backbone and branches of the smart home network, many of them want some flexibility on choosing the most appropriate connectivity for the last hop to the end node, especially in the case of constrained devices and cases in which backward compatibility with legacy devices is critical. In the most constrained devices, e.g., temperature sensors, the overhead of IP might mean transmitting hundreds of header bytes when the payload is only a few bytes of data. The effect on the most constrained devices will be increased complexity, increased hardware requirements, and increased on-air time, driving the price and power consumption up. In addition, companies like Signify, makers of Philips Hue smart lighting solutions, have large installed bases of legacy devices using non-IP connectivity such as Zigbee. Requiring IP support could cause interoperability problems for legacy customers. 

While the CHIP effort faces numerous technical and political challenges that must be negotiated and resolved, we believe the effort is a necessary step for the smart home market. Like any standards effort, CHIP will ultimately be a compromise solution and may fall short of initial expectations. However, we believe that the willingness of the top three industry leaders to work together is a very positive sign for the future of the smart home.