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Google says Matter is still set to fix the biggest smart home frustrations

Google’s Michele Turner discusses how Matter started and where it will take Google Nest.

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In early 2019, Michele Turner sat down for dinner with her colleague Grant Erickson. Joining them at the restaurant in Silicon Valley’s Woodside were two of their counterparts from Amazon and two from Apple. Turner and Erickson both worked for Google. The hosts of this dinner party were Tobin Richardson and John Osborne from the Zigbee Alliance. The aim of the evening was simple: fix the smart home.

Turner, the senior director of Google Smart Home Ecosystem, and Erickson, then a software engineer at Google, had agreed to meet with their competitors to find a solution to the major pain points in the smart home: reliability, connectivity, setup, and “the multi-platform problem.”  While this was not the first conversation between the companies, it was a significant step forward in an ongoing effort by the Zigbee Alliance to bring the industry together and address the challenge of interoperability in the smart home.

“Grant, who was also president of the Thread Group at the time, had been leading conversations with us internally at Google about how to solve some of the bigger problems in smart home,” recalls Turner. “We knew we had the foundational technologies to start to address this but that there was a lot to fix. Grant made a proposal. The Apple folks and the Amazon folks obviously had viewpoints as well. But we all could see the bigger picture of what needed to happen.”

Turner recalls they left the meeting with a draft proposal agreed on by all parties and with a commitment to take it further. Initially known internally as Project Unity, it went public just prior to CES 2020 as Project Chip (Connected Home over IP). Shortly after that — along with a rebrand of the Zigbee Alliance to the Connectivity Standards Alliance — the fruits of that Woodside dinner became Matter: the new interoperability smart home standard, and an unprecedented industry coalition. 

The Verge sat down with Turner ahead of Google I/O this week to hear how the company plans to implement Matter when it finally arrives later this year and what it will mean for users of Google’s Nest products and the Google Home app. 

Google has confirmed that all of its existing Nest branded smart speakers and displays will be upgraded with an over-the-air firmware update to support Matter, allowing you to use Google’s voice assistant to control any Matter-enabled device in your home, no matter who made it. It will also update its Google Home speaker and has said that the Nest Wi-Fi, Nest Hub Max, and Nest Hub (2nd Gen) will serve as Thread border routers. Thread is a low-power mesh networking protocol that allows devices to talk to each other locally without a hub, using border routers to route the packets of information around your house. Along with Wi-Fi, Thread is a key component of Matter. 

The Google Nest Hub Max will be one of three Google Nest devices to act as a Thread border router when Matter arrives.
The Google Nest Hub Max will be one of three Google Nest devices to act as a Thread border router when Matter arrives.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Matter has evolved substantially from that first meeting, and there have been delays and setbacks. Do you still feel confident in that original vision, that it’s being carried through and is on track to achieve what you set out to do at that Woodside dinner three years ago?

Michele Turner: I do. And, in fact, I think it’s exceeding our original vision in some ways. It’s been incredibly heartening to see the enthusiasm and the adoption and the number of companies that have joined the CSA and the Matter workgroup. We’re at 200 companies — it’s amazing. 

I think the CSA made the right call [on the latest delay]. We need to make sure that we’re going to have very high-quality devices in people’s homes. It has to work right. This is super complex. Partners have to make sure that the multi-admin is working accurately [a key feature of Matter that allows devices to work with any platform simultaneously], that they’re not only working with just the Google Nest controller devices but with the Amazon controller devices, the Apple controller devices, the Samsung controller devices. The complexity of this is very high. 

How is Matter going to change the smart home experience for the Google Home user?

For the Google Home user, I think the bigger areas of Matter where they’ll see change first is in getting your devices set up. I just set up some lights at my mother-in-law’s house, and it still took me 45 minutes to set up four lights. It shouldn’t have been so hard. The first thing is going to be that significantly simpler setup.

“The reality is people have iPhones and Android phones in their homes. Some of them want to use HomeKit.”

The second piece is the speed and the reliability of the local network. This has been a big pain point for users. My team spent a lot of time working with partners on improving reliability and reducing latency. Because in our mind, if it’s not as fast as a light switch, what’s the point? We believe Matter’s going to drive down those latency numbers significantly and improve the overall reliability of devices in the home. 

Then, I think interoperability for users is going to be a big piece. As much as we love having everybody using the Google Assistant, the reality is people have iPhones and Android phones in their homes. Some of them want to use HomeKit. We just don’t have that kind of compatibility today for users. And I think that’s hard. Being able to have multi-admin really work well between these ecosystems is going to be a big benefit for users. 

Then, our long-term goal is to build out what we call the proactive home. Instead of having a whole bunch of connected devices, how do we build that truly proactive home that works for the benefit of users? ... Matter is going to be absolutely foundational to that. It’s the architecture behind the proactive home. If we don’t have a home that’s reliable, if we don’t have things running locally, if it doesn’t work consistently, we cannot deliver on that promise. 

The proactive home is really that intelligence layer, whether it’s being able to predict that I’m going upstairs, it’s 10 at night, and I always go into my bedroom at that time, so turn on the lights for me; or, I’m watching TV, it’s 9:30PM, the kids are in bed, and I get a notification on my phone that the lights just went on in the kid’s bedroom. Is somebody sick? Are they watching YouTube? Being able to do anomaly detection. Now, Matter doesn’t do that. But it’s foundational to be able to enable the rest of that. Because if that core foundation of the home — of the smart home — isn’t solid, the rest of it just doesn’t work.

An illustration of a new user interface for setting up smart home devices using Google Home and Matter.
An illustration of a new user interface for setting up smart home devices using Google Home and Matter.
Image: Google Nest

Have you got features like that lined up ready to go? Can we expect to see a significant shift in the way we use our Google smart homes from Day One? Or is this going to be more of a slow build?

It’s going to be more of a build. We have to get those intelligence signals coming in, then we have to actually apply machine learning to them. We have to get enough of them coming in that we can build machine learning models around, build algorithms around, to start doing those predictive models. 

We have some of that data off of the cloud today. We’ve been using it in the Home and Away routine. But that we drive off of the geofence signals and the PIR sensor that’s in the thermostat. It’s taken us years to get that right. And we have a lot of data coming in from those sources. Now we’re going to have Matter sensors as a first-party device. Sensors are critical to being able to understand and drive this sort of predictive intelligence in the home. … But it’s going to take time to bring in the signals and build those models. They have to work accurately. You don’t want your lights to turn on at 2AM because some signal went haywire. 

“The biggest misconception is that Matter is going to solve every problem in IoT”

You mention that sensors are key to the smart home. Is Google exploring other ways of sensing beyond little white plastic boxes? At the Google Smart Home Developers Summit last year, you discussed technologies like ultra wideband for fine location tracking that could be potentially implemented in the smart home. Is that something that’s tied to Matter? Or is that something more specific to technologies you’re developing within your own ecosystem?

It’s not directly tied to Matter. We’re working with third-party partners that are using UWB today to try to build some of those more frictionless experiences in the home. But right now, in terms of the smart home area of Google, we’re mostly working with some of our third-party partners in the home security area around how to use UWB signals for things like frictionless entry [a security system turning off automatically when you walk in]. That’s a thing that’s coming. 

How are Google Nest devices going to work with Thread and Matter? It’s been announced which will be upgraded to Matter and which will be border routers. Can you tell us a little bit about how that’s going to work in the Google smart home powered by Matter?

Our Nest Hub Max and our Nest Hub (2nd Gen) will be able to act as Thread border routers, and we’re actively looking at other devices that may need Thread because Thread has been a part of our strategy for a long time. Now we are looking at the topology of the home. We understand what the mix of devices generally are in homes, and we want to expand that Thread footprint with our partners, like Nanoleaf and others. We have a lot of conversations around what’s the best way to start getting more Thread border routers into the home so that we will be able to have that truly fast network. There’s only so many that Google’s going to have. 

We’ve committed to our new Nest Thermostat being on Matter, and we are still evaluating if the learning thermostat can handle Matter. It does have Thread. But just because it has Thread doesn’t mean we can run Matter on it. 

Google’s latest thermostat will work with Matter, but the jury is still out on its iconic Nest Learning Thermostat.
Google’s latest thermostat will work with Matter, but the jury is still out on its iconic Nest Learning Thermostat.
Image: Google Nest

So, when the Nest Thermostat(s) is upgraded to Matter, you’ll be able to control it from an Apple HomeKit controller (such as a HomePod or Apple’s Home app) with Matter?

Yes, that is the multi-admin feature. If I want to have both HomeKit and Google Home running in the house, my HomeKit controller — my HomePod or my Apple TV — should be able to control my thermostat. 

However, a Matter controller can’t control another Matter controller [so a Nest Hub can’t control a HomePod Mini]. There’s a real difference here between controller devices and end devices. The controller devices act differently. 

Will manufacturers still have to certify their devices for each separate platform, as well as Matter certification and Thread (where applicable)? And if they don’t get the Google certification, will they still be controllable by Google Assistant or a Google Nest smart speaker or display?

If they choose to use our APIs, we will certify them to make sure they did their API implementation accurately. That will give them access to the Works with Google Home badge. But yes, they can do, say, a generic light bulb certification with Matter, get their light bulb working with Matter, and not use our APIs at all. Then, as long as the user has a compatible Google Nest hub in the home, they can use the Google Home app to set up the device as well as the Nest Hub to control the device.

As you’ve said, Matter is complicated. And there’s a lot of expectation that’s been placed on its shoulders. What would you say is the biggest misconception right now with Matter?

I think the biggest misconception is that Matter is going to solve every problem in IoT. It doesn’t have a native intelligence layer that’s going to automatically give you the proactive home. In my mind, it’s solving three very foundational things. It’s solving making setup easier for the majority of the devices that people put in their homes. Not the majority of device types, necessarily, but the majority of devices people put in their homes. 

“We are still evaluating if the learning thermostat can handle Matter”

It’s making the IoT more reliable and faster. And then it’s going to solve this multi-admin problem. It’s going to provide that device interconnectivity that we don’t have today that is really great for users. While it’s going to be a lot more than that, it’s not today. But it’s solving what we believe are really the core problems that have challenged adoption by mainstream users in the past.

It’s clear that connectivity is the main issue here that’s being solved. But when everything works with everything, the platforms are going to need to differentiate themselves to attract the user. Why will people want to use Google Home in the future when Matter arrives, as opposed to any of the other platforms?

One of the things that Matter does is level the playing field for these device makers. Now they’re all getting a little bit commodified. And they’re worried about that. The CSA says there are 130 devices on track to launch with Matter. But there are tens of thousands of devices out there. There’s a long way to go.

Some of the developers are a little bit “wait and see” because they’re worried about getting commoditized in the market. What Google is going to be offering to these developers — and I talked about this in the Smart Home Developer Summit, we’ll have more on it coming up at I/O — is the ability to work with us to build automations on our platform, which will enable them to differentiate. 

We’re not the experts in lighting; we’re not the experts in home cleaning; we’re not the experts in leak detection. That’s what our partners do. We want to build the best platform on top of Android, for them to be able to differentiate and build these new experiences that will create new offerings for users. I think that’s the value. 

Google is going to have some key offerings along the lines of intelligence in context that developers are going to be able to take advantage of to build these compelling and next-generation solutions on their platform.