There are numerous concepts in the history of modern tech that sounded way, way more promising than they turned out to be in practice and “the smart home” is definitely among those. It was supposed to be a digital management system for the 21st century home: an environment of interconnected devices taking care of everything — from lighting and security to heating and ventilation — on behalf of said home’s residents either intelligently, all on its own, or using voice commands and manual control.
Amazingly enough, tech companies accomplished so many other, much more complicated, things during the last 20 years… but managed to really, really screw up the “smart home” concept for everyone. It’s hard to choose devices of this type that work flawlessly with other devices, as only those specifically designed to do so seem to fit the bill. Manufacturers try to lock consumers into their platforms, ecosystems and apps in order to sell more of their own products. All popular voice assistants can work in the context of a smart home but rarely ever do they control competitors’ products as they very well should.
It is, frankly, a mess.
Matter is the tech standard that will strive to make things right for consumers, finally delivering the “smart home” dream.
What Matter is, why we need it
Let’s pull up an image that’s close enough to the actual problem at hand: if the market of smart home products is a vase, it’s broken and Matter can be the glue. Quite literally, in fact, as the smart home product market is fragmented not unlike a very, very big vase. Over the past decade or so there are four different competing smart home platforms: Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Samsung SmartThings. These work in similar ways but all these tech giants, in their infinite wisdom, have not bothered making their smart home products work with the products of other platforms.
Since all four have heavily invested in their respective smart home ecosystems they are not about to adopt each other’s standards, obviously, but they could adopt a new, common one between them so all of their products can work together at long last. That is what Matter will strive to be: a standard that sits “between” those of different manufacturers so as to make their products interoperable.
What this means in practice is simple: products of different manufacturers will be able to “talk to each other” in order to work together without issues while consumers will be able to literally talk to all those products using the voice assistant of their choice between Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant or Samsung’s Bixby. The same goes for each of the above’s platforms and respective controlling apps: consumers will be able to e.g. use and manage a Google Home smart camera through Apple’s Homekit or an Amazon Alexa smart speaker through Google Home.
So, conceivably, one can buy different smart home devices belonging to different ecosystems and manage all of them through the voice assistant and platform of their choice. This is something that’s simply impossible to do now and that is why Matter is sorely needed: it will greatly simplify the process of choosing and configuring smart home products for mainstream consumers.
What Matter will do, what it will not do… at first
When released, Matter will allow for smart home products from different manufacturers to communicate and work together regardless of the operating platform. These products include light bulbs and switches, smart plugs, smart locks, smart blinds and shades, garage door controllers, thermostats and HVAC controllers.
There are a lot of well-known manufacturers for each of the above categories that have already pledged support for the new standard: August, Schlage and Yale in smart locks; Belkin, Cync, General Electric, Sengled, Philips and Nanoleaf in smart lighting; as well as others like Arlo, Legrand, Comcast, Eve, Huawei and LG.
Despite the fact that the Connectivity Standards Alliance — the body maintaining Matter’s specs — boasts more than 240 companies as members, support for all smart home product categories probably won’t be achieved in time for Matter’s launch later this year. These include televisions, security cameras and doorbells, robot vacuums and other devices that will probably be covered in a later specification. As a consequence, Matter won’t cover every possible use case right out of the gate — but later versions will, as the standard will continue to evolve.
When will Matter be available and how?
The standard itself has been in development for years and it is now approaching its 1.0 state. It was supposed to be ready last year but it was delayed so it could be tested with as many smart home devices and platforms as possible (that task will obviously never be finished but a baseline has to be met). There are currently more than 130 devices across 16 development platforms working through Matter’s certification process and that number will probably be much higher by the time the standard is finalized.
Matter’s current official timeframe for release is Q4 of 2022. There’s always a chance for further delays, but the general consensus is that Matter 1.0 should be released sooner rather than later and then updated over time (subsequent versions will most probably be compatible with the first one anyway).
From a manufacturer’s perspective, this is how it will work: the CSA offers the necessary development kit to all interested companies to implement on their devices or hubs, present or future. A number of them have already done much of the work, others will depend on the finalized specs. Manufacturers will then submit their devices for certification (some already have). Cost is an important factor here: Matter is open source, so companies do not have to pay royalties or other licensing fees in order to use it. It’s in everyone’s best interest to be included in the Matter ecosystem and chances are that many manufacturers will do just that — if not during the first “wave” of Matter-compatible products, then during the next ones.
From a consumer’s perspective, this is how it will work: manufacturers will either push firmware updates for their current devices, the ones people already use, in order to make those compatible with Matter, or offer new versions of those products that are Matter-compatible from the get-go. Consumers do not have to do anything other than update their current products (in the first case) or look for the Matter logo in any future products’ specs and packaging they’ll consider purchasing (in the second case).
Is Matter going to succeed?
Well, we all sure hope it will! It is something that’s sorely needed if the smart home dream is to come true one day. If interoperability between different brands and types of said devices is not achieved, then we’ll never see the kind of “transparent” everyday operation of a futuristic smart home that science fiction movies had so optimistically foreseen in the past. It is as simple as that.
A number of skeptics claim that Matter won’t be fully adopted by the most prominent manufacturers, who may try to have their cake and eat it too: that is, implement Matter for the most common functions of their devices but keep the most advanced ones proprietary to their own platforms. It’s a possibility… if those manufacturers feel that doing so is worth the negative publicity which will surely follow. Others believe that manufacturers will support Matter, but that they will only do so with new products, choosing not to upgrade existing ones in order to boost sales. That’s — sadly — quite likely, regardless of whether new hardware is required for supporting the new standard or not.
Whatever the case may be, we all need Matter to succeed long-term. Google, Apple, Amazon, Samsung et al will continue to invest in their platforms and ecosystems — and that’s perfectly fine. But the concept of a modern smart home will never go mainstream if all manufacturers do not support Matter at some point. Since it’s highly doubtful that there will ever be a single, universal standard for all the smart home products under the sun, there should be — at the very least — a standard sitting at the center of all current and future standards going forward. That is why Matter, well, matters.