clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Matter’s plan to save the smart home

Matter is a new standard that promises to fix smart home interoperability — but can it deliver?

The smart home should be a natural evolution of our homes, bringing better appliances, better systems, better experiences. But to date, 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.

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 Wyze, iRobot, Signify (Philips Hue), Ecobee, 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?

Image: Comic by xkcd

“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 should be ready by mid-2022, and the goal is to have the first Matter-certified devices available by the end of 2022, says Richardson. 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 explainer piece “What matters about Matter” article, where we look at what the different smart home platforms have committed to supporting around Matter and which devices are Matter-ready (a number of smart home makers have announced plans to update existing products as soon as Matter arrives). 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 all those white boxes hooked up to your modem.

To simplify adoption, Matter will start as an application layer on top of existing IP technologies, including ethernet, Wi-Fi, Thread, and Bluetooth (for device provisioning). This means Matter is not reinventing the wheel; it’s adding better technology to the highways our smart homes are driving on.

A Matter network map shows how devices will connect to each other, to the internet, and to other protocols using Wi-Fi, Thread, and Matter controllers.
Image: Z-Wave Alliance

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, which will happen 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. “Networking is one of the biggest problems of the smart home; sensors and devices dropping offline,” says Tony Fadell, founder of Nest.

Thread and the precursor to Matter, Weave, 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. “Every single Nest thermostat since the beginning has shipped with a Zigbee radio inside, a connection for a long-distance, low-power protocol,” says Fadell. 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 is working toward running all of its relevant products on the protocol, 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 mailman: 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.

This image illustrates how Thread border routers connect a thread network to the internet.
Image: Thread Group

While Z-Wave and Zigbee will continue to be part of the smart home — existing hubs can be upgraded to Thread or 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 still.”

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. This can be a smartphone or tablet, but it 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. While devices will work across platforms, automations and routines will not. “If you are using 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. Amazon’s Frustration-Free setup is part of the Matter spec, explains Chris DeCenzo, principal software development engineer at Amazon Lab126, alongside Matter’s own set-up process. 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. Still, in some cases, you will need them to access device-specific features that aren’t available in Matter, and probably to update firmware, although this may happen through Matter.

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. If video doorbells become part of Matter in the future, Amazon could choose not to support doorbells in its controller. 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 has released a slew of new smart home products in 2021, including a thermostat, air quality monitor, and smart switches, with not a 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 committed to 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 some cards close to their chest. While it’s legitimately tricky to say how you will develop your products for a specification that hasn’t been finalized yet, these companies are all deeply involved in the process, so they are hardly flying blind.

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.

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 a recent 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?

In all of the interviews I did for this article, no one had anything negative to say about Matter (on the record). Right now, the industry is aligned on drinking the same Kool-Aid. But Matter is still an idea — albeit one with an unprecedented industry coalition behind it that makes it the most promising development in the smart home since Alexa arrived on the scene. It’s easy to love an idea; it can be harder to implement and stick to one.

Matter’s biggest roadblock is that it’s not here yet, and whether it will arrive as promised is still a large question mark. This is holding some companies back from committing to it or developing products for it today. “We totally believe in the vision and in all the benefits that will come from having a single protocol,” says Amazon’s DeCenzo. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get there. And that’s going to be a journey.”

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.

“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 Tuesday, December 14, 10:55AM: Clarified what Matter-ready devices are -- those products manufacturers have said will be updated to Matter as soon as the specification is released.

Updated Wednesday, December 15, 5:35PM: Included the names of the other companies involved in the initial development of Thread.

Correction Tuesday, December 28, 2:35PM: A previous version of this article stated Amazon’s Frustration Free Setup process was the basis for the Matter setup process. While it is part of the Matter spec, it is one option a developer can choose to use. We regret the error.

Gaming

Blizzard boss details what the studio is doing to ‘rebuild your trust’

Apps

TikTok is thinking about letting its creators charge subscription fees

Entertainment

Netflix co-CEO says there will ‘absolutely’ be a second season of Squid Game

View all stories in Tech