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Here’s how Amazon says Matter will make Alexa better

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The director of Alexa smart home explains how Matter can help realize Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence

Amazon is counting on Matter to help fulfill its smart home ambitions.
Image: Amazon

Amazon wants every smart home device to work with its Alexa ecosystem, and it says Matter is key to achieving that goal. “We really believe in ambient intelligence — an environment where your devices are woven together by artificial intelligence so they can offer far more than any device could do on its own,” Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, told The Verge in an interview.

“Matter brings interoperability, and interoperability between all of those devices in the home is essential to realizing [our] vision of ambient intelligence.” The more devices can talk to each other, the more “experiences” platforms can build with them. For example, “If I leave home and I forget to turn off the lights or adjust my thermostat, Alexa will do that for me, including locking the doors,” says Koopmans.

Matter is a new standard coming to a smart home near you later this year. It will allow connected devices to communicate using existing IP-based wireless protocols Thread and Wi-Fi. It’s not a smart home platform like Apple HomeKit, Google Home, or Amazon’s Alexa. So, you will still need to choose one of these platforms to run your Matter-enabled devices, but you aren’t limited to one.

Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung are embracing Matter because it will allow any device to work on their smart home platforms, regardless of who made it, and without requiring any special platform-specific programming on the developer’s part. If it works with Matter, it will just work — at least, for the device categories Matter will initially support: smart lighting, plugs, locks, sensors, thermostats, shades / blinds, and Wi-Fi routers.

Of course, that means those devices “just work” on their competitors’ platforms, too. You’ll be able to add devices to multiple platforms at once and then control them with any Matter controller. A Matter controller can be a smart display or speaker, a voice assistant, or a smartphone app. As an example, this means if you add a Matter device using Alexa, you will also be able to control it with Apple’s HomeKit or Google Home.

But the theory is that with an even playing field, each platform believes it can offer the best “experience” for the customer. And if they don’t, you can switch all your Matter devices over to another platform — without hours of tedious effort — and test drive that one.

We should start seeing Matter devices later this year; they will be identifiable by the Matter logo.
Image: NXP

Can we have more Matter devices, please?

For all this to work, there need to be a lot of Matter devices. At its Alexa Live Developer Event this week, Amazon announced a slew of tools and features to help developers to build Matter devices, much as Google did at I/O, Apple at WWDC, and Samsung at SDC. And these tools will help developers build Matter-enabled devices that work with every platform, not just Alexa.

Koopmans emphasized that Amazon is also helping developers add Matter compatibility to existing products through bridging. “Matter is not another protocol reset,” she says. “Customers don’t need to replace their existing devices; Matter is designed to build upon the investments that customers and device-makers have already made.”

Another big promise of the Matter standard is simplifying the smart home experience, making it much easier to add devices to your smart home. On this front, Amazon touted its Frustration Free Setup process that adds a device automatically as soon as it’s powered on — no pairing required.

Amazon says it donated FFS to the Matter SDK as an option for developers. Sengled and TP-Link are using it in their Matter-over-Wi-Fi devices, and Eve and Nanoleaf in their Matter-over-Thread devices. “By adding FFS straight into the Matter SDK, it means that developers don’t need an Amazon-specific SDK at all,” explained Koopmans. Eve is particularly notable here: until Matter became a reality, its products only worked with Apple HomeKit.

A new Ambient Home Dev Kit lets device makers tap deeper into Alexa’s capabilities to create more of those “experiences” Koopmans says will help differentiate Alexa’s platform. These include a new Home State API with Home, Vacation, Dinner Time, and Sleep modes that can keep smart devices in sync.

Currently, you might run an Alexa Routine or tell Alexa “I’m leaving” to lock your door, turn down your thermostat, turn off your lights, and arm your security system. But with the new Home States, Koopmans says the experience will be more “ambient and proactive,” and you won’t have to say “I’m leaving.”

“But it’s up to the developers to design that experience,” she says. Amazon is also expanding Routines to allow device manufacturers to create them for you, another step to making the smart home more automated and less complicated (for more on this, read my colleague David Pierce’s article).

This is all part of Amazon’s attempt to create a context-based smart home experience, where through input from all your devices, your home “just knows” what you’re doing and can adjust automatically. Alexa currently has a version of this with its Hunches, where when the assistant “has a hunch” you want something done, like turn off the porch light after 9PM, it does it for you.

But responding correctly to context is a complicated effort. Google Nest has struggled for years to get its Home and Away modes to work without any user input, and it’s still not succeeded. Apple hasn’t even tried. Matter will help everyone enormously here as the more devices that are connected to your home, the easier context will be to create.

The Echo Dot will work with Matter-over-Wi-Fi; the Echo will be a Thread border router.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

How Matter will improve Alexa

Amazon didn’t provide any update on how Alexa devices themselves will integrate with Matter. Koopmans simply reiterated to The Verge that existing Echo devices will receive OTA updates to work with Matter over Wi-Fi and that Eero Wi-Fi routers and the fourth-gen Echo smart speaker will also act as Thread border routers to connect any Thread devices to your home network. But she did share more on how Alexa and its app will work with Matter devices and other Matter-compatible ecosystems once the standard launches.

Matter will add some local control to Alexa, making the voice assistant faster to respond to smart home queries, such as “Turn the lights off.” “And with a Thread border router in your home, your smart home will work, regardless of whether the internet is up or down,” Koopmans confirmed.

She also confirmed that Alexa will play well with other Matter-enabled ecosystems, such as Google Home and Apple HomeKit. You’ll be able to add devices to Alexa and then control them with any Matter controller. “[A customer] can add new Matter devices or additional Matter admins [controllers] seamlessly in the background without needing to generate and input a Matter setup code for each one,” says Koopmans.

You can also choose to add Alexa as a Matter controller when you set up a device using a manufacturer’s app, so you don’t have to go into the Alexa app to add it separately. Another new feature across multiple apps is Device Group Sync, which will mean when you add a group such as “kitchen lights” to either the Alexa app or a device’s app, it will show up in both apps. This is similar to how Apple’s HomeKit app works with device apps today. Apple has said it donated the underlying infrastructure of its Home app to Matter.

All this cooperation may seem highly suspicious to people who’ve seen companies like Amazon and Google fight tooth and nail over every little thing. (Is there a YouTube app on Amazon Echo smart displays? I think not.) But when it comes to the smart home, there’s been a collective reckoning in the industry; it’s time to cooperate or die. “I don’t believe there’s a future for the smart home if the industry doesn’t work together to create great experiences for our shared customers,” says Koopmans. And she is not wrong.