The smart home should be a natural evolution of our homes, bringing better appliances, better systems, and better experiences. But so far, it’s been complicated, confusing, and expensive. Walled gardens have stifled innovation as developers focus on getting their devices to work with three or four or more different platforms rather than spending their time creating better products and new features. Consumers spend too much energy figuring out which product works with which and then troubleshooting those connections, before often giving up on the whole thing. This has led to a slower smart home adoption than many expected.
What the smart home needs, and has needed for a long time, is a universal connectivity standard — a basic level of common plumbing in our homes for everything to flow through. Just as we chose VHS over Betamax in the ’80s (and Blu-ray over HD-DVD in the early 2000s) for a better home theater experience, so we need to choose a smart home standard.
The problem is there aren’t two or three standards to choose from. There are many, and none of them work very well on their own. Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth have all tried and failed to become the primary radio protocol of the smart home. But none have gained enough traction or offered enough flexibility to fit into all corners of the smart home.
That’s where Matter comes in.
Buy a gadget, plug it in, and it will work with the rest of your smart home. Set up that new device with your favorite smart home app, and control it with your voice assistant of choice, no matter who made it. This may sound like some distant smart home nirvana, but this is the promise of Matter. The simple smart home could be just around the corner.
An open-sourced connectivity standard created by over 200 companies, Matter is a communication protocol that leverages existing technologies — Thread, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ethernet — to allow all of your devices to communicate with each other locally, without the need for a cloud.
Buy a gadget, plug it in, and it will work with the rest of your smart home
What makes Matter more than just another smart home standard is momentum; most of the industry is on board. Organized by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (or CSA, formerly the Zigbee Alliance), Matter is being developed by Amazon, Apple, Google / Nest, and Samsung, alongside many other smart home and smart home-adjacent companies, including Lutron, iRobot, Signify (Philips Hue), Ikea, and more.
Driven by a shared need to fix the problems of the smart home, these companies are working together to figure out how to make this standard be the one that sticks. Can Matter finally bring an end to the confusion perfectly encapsulated by Randall Munroe’s classic xkcd “Standards” comic?
“This is a Renaissance [for the smart home]” says Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the CSA. “Most of the industry, if not all the industry have agreed that [Matter] is going to be the way this will happen.” They are seemingly all on board with the fact that Matter is the solution to the smart home’s biggest problems — simplicity, interoperability, reliability, and security.
The final Matter specification, SDK, and certification program arrived in the fall of 2022, and the first Matter-certified devices should come out in December. That’s over a year later than promised when Matter first launched in 2019, but better late than never.
If you have already boned up on what Matter is and why it… matters, and you just want to know what devices you can buy and when, head over to our “What matters about Matter” article, where we look at how the different smart home platforms are implementing Matter and which devices are Matter-ready or will be updated to support Matter soon. Otherwise, read on to learn about how Matter is going to fix the smart home.
What is Matter, and why is it different?
Matter is a unified connectivity technology for the smart home. It is not a smart home platform like Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa. Matter doesn’t automate or control your home; it simply provides the pipes and language for devices to communicate.
Its unique feature is it’s an IP-based technology, meaning it uses the same mechanisms to communicate as the internet. So, there is no dependency on bridges or hubs, and yes, you will (eventually) be able to get rid of most of those white boxes hooked up to your router.
Matter is not reinventing the wheel; it’s adding better technology to the highways our smart homes are driving on
To simplify adoption, Matter will start as an application layer on top of existing IP technologies, including ethernet, Wi-Fi, Thread, and Bluetooth (for onboarding devices). This means Matter is not reinventing the wheel; it’s adding better technology to the highways our smart homes are driving on.
Once in your home, Matter devices can operate entirely locally, talking to each other over Thread and Wi-Fi and not going through the cloud. That means if your internet goes down, your smart home will still work. Devices will still need to communicate with the internet for out-of-home control and firmware and security upgrades, either directly or through a Matter controller device (i.e., a smart speaker, smartphone, or bridge). Local control is a significant step in maintaining privacy in the smart home, a big concern for people when considering installing smart home devices.
Smart home company Eve built its entire business model on local control. “Our privacy platform is ‘what’s at home stays at home,’” Jerome Gackel, Eve Systems CEO, tells me. “With Matter, you do not need a cloud — you can have one, but it’s not a requirement.” Its commitment to avoiding cloud control is why Eve devices have been iPhone- and HomeKit-only thus far. But with Matter, Eve can move to the other platforms while remaining entirely local.
What is Thread, and why is it better?
Thread is one of the key technologies of Matter. It promises to make the smart home more robust. Like Z-Wave and Zigbee, Thread is a low-power mesh networking protocol.
Thread — and Weave, the precursor to Matter — was first developed in 2014 by Nest and six other companies, including Silicon Labs, ARM, Samsung Electronics, and Yale Security. Thread’s big selling points are speed and reliability. A motion sensor will turn your lights on in a millisecond compared to a second, and your network won’t go down because you accidentally unplugged the hub, as — with enough devices deployed — a Thread network can self-heal.
Unlike Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, Thread was specifically developed as a smart home protocol. Other protocols used in the smart home to date have been co-opted into that role, meaning they have practical and usability issues. Wi-Fi is too power-hungry for battery-powered devices. Bluetooth has range limitations. Zigbee and Z-Wave require dedicated hubs, which are cumbersome to set up and maintain and can be a single point of failure.
Thread began in Nest’s earliest days, pre-Google. “Every single Nest thermostat since the beginning has shipped with a Zigbee radio inside, a connection for a long-distance, low-power protocol,” says Tony Fadell, founder of Nest. The idea was to future-proof a device likely to stay in the home for 10 to 20 years. “We wanted it to be able to talk to the future smart home,” he says.
But Zigbee wasn’t progressing fast enough for the Nest team, so they worked with Silicon Labs and others to develop Thread, which, in technical terms, is a Zigbee hardware stack with a software layer on top. “We knew what needed to happen — we needed a home IP-based mesh network with low-power range,” says Fadell. “The key is it’s IP native.” Low-power radios in the smart home have needed a hub or bridge to talk to the internet, but that problem went away by making Thread IP native. “That is what is so powerful about it,” says Fadell.
Eve was one of the first smart home companies to adopt Thread, and today, it has launched new Thread versions of almost all of its relevant products, having shifted over from Bluetooth. “Thread has really changed the reliability of our product, especially in terms of automation,” says Eve’s Gackel. “The difference between our Bluetooth product and Thread product experience has really increased customer satisfaction.”
Thread devices can be battery-powered or wall-powered, and the latter can be a Thread border router, a bridge between a Wi-Fi and Thread network. But a border router isn’t a typical white plastic box type of bridge that plugs into your router. The tech will be built into any device with an always-on power source and can be placed anywhere in your home.
A smart plug, smart speaker, fridge, TV, thermostat, and Wi-Fi access point can all be Thread border routers. “As you add more border routers in the home, you get better range and reliability,” explains Kevin Po, senior product manager at Google and a member of the CSA board. Case in point, the aesthetically pleasing Nanoleaf Shapes and Elements light panels are also Thread border routers, with a smidge more pizazz than a white plastic box.
A border router is like a mail carrier: it routes the different packets of information. Unlike a smart home hub, it doesn’t know what’s in those packets or control them. If a smart speaker wants to know the state of a lock, the border router can tell it without ever knowing the state itself. “From an end-to-end security perspective, that routing aspect provides a lot of benefits,” says Po.
While Z-Wave and Zigbee will continue to be part of the smart home — existing hubs will continue to work with the platforms they already work with, and could be bridged to Matter — it seems possible these technologies will be phased out in the residential setting. “It would certainly seem, if everything is executed as promised, that it will make sense to move towards Matter products,” says Mitch Klein, executive director of the Z-Wave Alliance. “That’s a big ‘if,’ however, and there are other questions in terms of security.”
Because Matter devices can speak straight to the internet, that potentially exposes them to hacking or malware, says Klein. Matter’s security approach is “strong, agile (to address the evolution of things like encryption types over time), and proactive, with a community of members who do threat modeling and mitigation,” says Richardson of the CSA. IP control is central to the function of Matter, and Richardson argues that the approach is one of resilient security while still getting the benefits of an IP-connected world.
How will devices work in a Matter smart home?
The Matter home will need a Wi-Fi access point and a Matter controller. If it has the right hardware, a Matter controller can also be a Thread border router that works with your preferred smart home ecosystem — such as an Amazon Echo speaker, an Apple HomePod Mini, a Google Nest Hub, or a Samsung SmartThings hub. Ultimately. we might have all three devices in one (Google and Eero both have Wi-Fi routers that are also Thread border routers and could be Matter controllers.)
While devices will work across platforms, automations and routines will not. “If you are using Apple HomeKit, you will need a HomeKit hub,” explains Gackel. “A Google hub will not run HomeKit automations.”
A Matter home will be able to incorporate any smart home device that is Matter certified. (The Matter logo on a product will indicate that it’s compatible.) You will also be able to set up any Matter device with your controller app, similar to how Apple’s HomeKit works today. All this means that when you buy a new product — such as a lightbulb or door lock — if it has a Matter logo, you won’t need to worry about what it works with; it will just work.
It will also be simpler to set up. Alongside scanning a QR code as you do with HomeKit today, Amazon’s Frustration-Free setup has been added to the Matter spec, explains Chris DeCenzo, principal software development engineer at Amazon Lab126. It’s designed to enable a “zero-touch” experience, where you take the device out of the box, plug it in, and it connects to your home automatically, says DeCenzo.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be manufacturer apps, just that you won’t have to use them for setup. You will need them to access device-specific features that aren’t available in Matter, such as energy monitoring for a smart plug, dynamic lighting scenes for smart lights, and options like adaptive lighting in Apple Home. You will also likely need them to update firmware, although this may happen through Matter.
Companies are committing to Matter, but some are still holding a few cards close to their chest.
Despite the coming together of the big four smart home companies and the general excitement of the early Matter push, the reality is the smart home will still be a divided one. Matter may provide a basic standard of interoperability and portability, but companies will still seek competitive advantages.
For example, nothing in the Matter spec requires a Matter controller to support all device categories. Amazon is only supporting three device types at launch: smart plugs, smart bulbs, and smart switches. When video doorbells become part of Matter (security cameras are part of the next phase), Amazon could choose not to support them at all. Amazon’s Ring doorbells already work in the Ring app and with its Echo devices, meaning the company may see no need to develop another doorbell camera controller.
There’s also nothing compelling companies to upgrade products that they don’t want to. Google has said it will update its newest Nest Smart Thermostat to Matter but has not said if any of the three generations of the Nest Learning Thermostat or the Thermostat E will follow suit.
Amazon released a slew of new smart home products in 2021, including a thermostat, air quality monitor, and smart switches, with no mention of Matter compatibility. DeCenzo tells me this doesn’t mean it won’t come, but that’s not exactly a guarantee that it will. “It’s hard for a device maker to make any absolute statements about something they’re going to support that isn’t here today,” he says. “Matter was just an idea when these devices were being developed.”
Apple has updated its entire platform to support Matter but hasn’t commented on whether it will adopt the Matter TV and Streaming Video player specification to allow Matter controllers to cast content from smartphones to televisions, similar to how AirPlay works.
On the one hand, companies are committing to Matter, but with the other hand they’re still holding cards close to their chest. While it was legitimately tricky to say how you would develop your products for a specification that hasn’t been finalized yet, now that Matter is here these companies need to make their intentions clear to avoid making the smart home even more confusing.
How will companies differentiate themselves in Matter?
Before Matter, compatibility was a huge selling point for devices. You bought a smart lock largely because it worked with your ecosystem of choice. With Matter, that reason should go away.
Now, companies will need to innovate on top of the standard to create reasons for you to choose their devices over the competition. “What Matter does is change the game, so companies aren’t competing on connectivity and interoperability, and it’s just there,” says Michelle Mindala-Freeman, head of marketing at Connectivity Standards Alliance. Instead, they will need to compete on features, which could make for a better experience for us, the users.
This would appear to put the big four smart home platforms on an even playing field. If all devices talk to each other, you’re no longer locked into Google’s ecosystem because your preferred door lock only works with Google. While this would seem counter to Google, Amazon, etc. selling more devices, what it does is make it easier for each company to innovate and move forward with their respective visions of the smart home.
Ultimately, if the hardware is commoditized, the value becomes in the service layer your ecosystem of choice adds to your experience. Matter’s specifications are designed to be simple: that door lock will lock and unlock. “Above that, it’s up to the device makers, the platform companies and such to understand how to best innovate,” says Po.
If you want more advanced features — such as adaptive lighting or touch-to-unlock — you will go to a platform or manufacturer that supports those. “It will make for a more competitive environment,” says Kevin Kraus, of Yale Residential, part of Assa Abloy. “If you want a fully-featured door lock, you’re likely to buy a Yale lock. But let’s say you’ve got a shed, and you just need something that locks and unlocks, then you might go for something less sophisticated.”
Matter should push manufacturers to innovate, too. “We need to focus more on the added value of our products,” said Florian Deleuil of Netatmo in an interview. “Otherwise, it could end up being difficult to distinguish our product from that of cheaper and less innovative suppliers.”
While it will be more competitive, the thinking is that the market will be much larger. Matter will help the smart home go from niche to mass. “If this is successful, everyone sells more,” says Z-Wave’s Klein. “Market penetration increases, the stagnation of the smart home in terms of growth is going to increase, and new product categories will open up.”
Today, you might choose a washing machine because it has an excellent design, a special cycle for athletic wear, and offers good energy and water efficiency. You don’t choose it because it works with Alexa or syncs with your fridge. Going forward, that’s probably how you’ll choose your next smart device. “Both industrial design, the overall physical user experience, and the feature sets that they virtually interact with will drive purchase decisions, not just who it works with,” says Klein.
Matter will also provide wider choice. Today, you may be limited to devices that work with the platform you have set up. With Matter, that restriction should go away. The smart home future — where all devices communicate with each other to help your home run more efficiently, intelligently, and seamlessly — will finally emerge.
But will it Matter?
Right now, the smart home industry is aligned on supporting Matter. But Matter is still in its infancy. And while it was born from an unprecedented industry coalition that makes it the most promising development in the smart home since Alexa arrived on the scene, co-parenting can be hard.
Fadell, who is as excited about the validation of his Thread gamble as a kid at Christmas, is also slightly skeptical. He worries that proprietary moves by companies looking to differentiate products could harm Matter’s overall promise.
Is Apple going to go out of its way to make sure Amazon’s products work well with its platform?
“Everything can talk to everything in Matter, but that doesn’t mean the experiences will be the same. I can speak French, but am I really French? No,” says Fadell. “It’s the same thing here. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, sure you may work with other systems in certain ways — but inside Apple, with all the Apple tools, it will be a better experience, and it’s going to stay that way.”
Yes, you will be able to use an Apple speaker to control an Amazon device, but is Apple going to go out of its way to make sure Amazon’s products work well with its platform? “Unlikely,” says Fadell.
Ultimately, Matter isn’t the solution we — as consumers — have been waiting for. On day one, it’s not going to produce the ambient, self-aware smart home that can respond to your every need without a lick of set-up on our part.
What it is is the solution smart home developers need so that they can start building products and services for that smart home we’re waiting for. “If Matter only changes a couple of things, we will still have a fundamental new technology that works,” says Fadell. “And if it’s adopted — well, let’s see what happens then.”
Updated Friday, November 18th, 3:45PM: This article was first published in October 2021, we’ve updated language and links throughout to reflect that the Matter specification has now launched.