Alibaba Builds a Smart Home
Ecosystem with Bluetooth Mesh

With the rapid development of IoT and AI technology, as well as the continuous increase in consumer awareness, the smart home has become a hot topic of widespread interest. In recent years, growth in the number of annual Bluetooth® smart home device shipments has accelerated year by year. According to the 2019 Bluetooth Market Update, the annual shipments of Bluetooth smart home devices are expected to reach 1.15 billion by 2023, and already total more than ¾ of a billion.

The growth expectations of Bluetooth in the smart home can be partly attributed to the introduction of the Bluetooth mesh networking specification released in July 2017, which enables Bluetooth member companies to develop solutions that meet the needs of many emerging markets, including the smart home. Bluetooth mesh enables hundreds or even thousands of devices to connect reliably and securely, creating large-scale device networks that can be used across a range of commercial and industrial environments to support control, monitoring, and automation systems. We are also noticing an exciting trend where some large enterprises in the smart home market are choosing Bluetooth mesh as a strategic communications protocol for smart home solutions, enabling developers using their smart home platform to create more applications. This will effectively promote an acceleration of the development of the smart home industry and ecosystem.  

Alibaba is one member company driving Bluetooth mesh adoption in smart home development. Having explored opportunities in the smart home market for quite a while now, Alibaba relies on the Bluetooth mesh technology and is gradually setting up a smart home ecosystem with the Tmall Genie smart speaker in the center, which has brought higher security and convenience to many families.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Ru Yi, General Manager of Alibaba A.I. Labs Smart Device Dept, to discuss their decision to adopt Bluetooth mesh networking as their smart home protocol, the main features of Bluetooth mesh, and some future application scenarios.

Q & A with Ru Yi

What are the challenges and opportunities you are currently facing in creating this smart home ecosystem?

The biggest obstacle in building a smart home ecosystem would be the lack of interoperability of connectivity. Therefore, the biggest challenge is how we can integrate the whole industrial chain of the smart home through a wireless connectivity standard. What we are seeing is that Alibaba is doing this with the AI voice portal and leading technologies of the Tmall Genie speaker series, which top the domestic market in shipments. With Bluetooth mesh connectivity, we are empowering the traditional home appliance industry’s intelligent upgrade and transformation, as well as promoting the development of a great ecosystem of smart home connectivity.

The Bluetooth mesh standard guarantees interoperability amongst smart home products.

Why did you choose Bluetooth mesh networking? What are the main technical advantages?

Bluetooth technology is relatively mature. The Bluetooth mesh standard guarantees interoperability amongst smart home products. We chose Bluetooth mesh mainly because of its advantages in Ad Hoc networking capability, security, ease of use, and the advantage of being able to directly connect to mobile phones and devices, as well as the low power consumption and high cost performance of the chip modules.

What kind of role does Bluetooth mesh currently play in the Alibaba Smart Home Tmall Genie Ecosystem? Could you give us some usage scenarios?

Bluetooth mesh networking is the standard that the Tmall Genie ecosystem mainly advocates. Through a voice command as simple as “Tmall Genie, look for teammates”, users are able to use smart devices without hassles, thus greatly reducing usage thresholds. At present, usage scenarios are mainly in smart lighting, smart power plugs, smart fans, and sensors, among others. 

What kind of application does Bluetooth technology play in the Tmall Genie Smart Speaker?

Bluetooth is well positioned to help home automation reach mass scale.

Since the launch day of the first Tmall Genie smart speaker, Alibaba has positioned it as consumer-grade hardware developed to improve the next generation of human-computer interactions. Already, tens of millions of users are communicating with Tmall Genie speakers with their voices and regarding them as their companions.

For over a decade, Bluetooth has been the global wireless standard for the connected home, connecting everything from appliances to entertainment systems. Now, with mesh networking support, Bluetooth is well positioned to help the home automation market reach mass scale. Bluetooth mesh plays an important role in strengthening the connectivity and interoperability among smart home devices. It also provides the flexibility for us to define our home automation experience. We are seeing an increasing demand for more and more IoT devices to connect with the Tmall Genies. And, as an international standard for connectivity, Bluetooth mesh technology will undoubtedly be adopted by more enterprises as time goes by.

What has Alibaba done to promote the adoption of the Bluetooth mesh applications in the Tmall Genie ecosystem in the Chinese market? What are the results?

Alibaba continues to promote the construction and commercialization of the Bluetooth mesh ecosystem in various aspects, such as industry expos, forums, and e-commerce channel sales as well as opening up the platform of the Tmall Genie. Moreover, the Dingding technology discussion group set up on the Yunqi cloud community provides developers with an effective technical exchange platform, which continuously outputs high-quality answers for the practical questions encountered by developers in creating Bluetooth mesh applications. At present, there are more than 2000 developers in the group.

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Bluetooth Mesh Models – A Technical Overview

In this detailed technical paper, Martin Woolley provides a guided tour of the Bluetooth mesh models, taking an in-depth look at the building blocks critical to Bluetooth mesh interoperability.

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As the Chairman of the smart home subgroup of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), what do you think the significance and value of the establishment of this subgroup is? What are the latest developments?

The benefits of the subgroup include uniting the community of the smart home industry, accelerating the development of more smart home Bluetooth mesh model standards, and promoting the wireless connectivity and interoperability amongst smart home devices and applications based on Bluetooth mesh technology. Moreover, the subgroup currently uses Chinese as the working language, which is good news for the enterprises in China’s smart home market who want to participate in the discussion and formulation of the Bluetooth mesh standard.

Since the establishment of the subgroup, more than 90 enterprises in the Bluetooth industry chain have joined. At present, the subgroup is carrying out mesh models standard setting in fields such as space and location modeling, fan modeling, and infrared Bluetooth conversing modeling.

In response to increased adoption of Bluetooth mesh networking in smart home solutions, the Bluetooth SIG announced the formation of the Smart Home Subgroup earlier this year. This subgroup was established to create additional Bluetooth mesh model specifications for smart home and related applications. Mesh models constitute the application layer of Bluetooth mesh networking and define the behavior of devices connected to a Bluetooth mesh network. The mesh models developed by this subgroup will be available to all member companies for use in conjunction with the Bluetooth mesh networking specifications, thereby enabling multi-vendor interoperability in the smart home. Now, every Bluetooth SIG member company can register to join this subgroup and contribute ideas of mesh module standards.

The video below shows you how the Bluetooth Smart Home Subgroup is making intelligent and integrated smart home experiences a reality.

The Bluetooth SIG also published Bluetooth Mesh Models – A Technical Overview, which was drafted by Developer Relations Manager, EMEA, Bluetooth SIG, Martin Woolley. This detailed technical paper provides a guided tour of the Bluetooth mesh models, taking an in-depth look at the building blocks critical to Bluetooth mesh interoperability. The full paper is available to download now!

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