Matter standard gives home appliances a common language
Image credit: Info849943 | Dreamstime
Matter, an open-source connectivity standard that allows smart home devices to talk seamlessly to one another, is now live. After years of fragmentation, has the industry finally united behind a universal smart home standard?
In the smart home that was promised, domestic appliances – thermostats, smart fridges, smart locks, smart lights – work together to manage our households with minimal interference. The reality is a muddle of systems that refuse to communicate: a patched-together collection of digital domestic servants shouting at one another in mutually unintelligible languages to little effect.
Lack of interoperability is among the most serious obstacles to expansion of the ‘internet of things’, and has long been recognised as such. A 2014 UK government report warned that competing IoT standards are a major block to growth in the sector: “Left unchecked, this carries a risk of restrictive standards being set and enforced by monopolistic providers, and of fragmentation inhibiting the interoperability of devices.”
This fragmentation is particularly painful when it comes to the smart home. Consumers are forced to patch together proprietary systems with bridges, install a variety of apps, and make multiple user accounts to get their devices working together. Even the most tech-savvy consumers find this off-putting. Developers are wasting time creating similar products for each platform, while retailers are forced to maintain multiple inventories.
This approach, in which device compatibility is severely restricted, is commonly termed the ‘walled garden’ approach to IoT.
Lars Felber, PR director at German smart home company Eve Systems, describes the domestic IoT ecosystem as a collection of isolated islands: “The smart home sector today looks like a huge ocean full of little islands. You go to the shop and buy a lighting product, and at home, you find out that you need a bridge for it that you might not have. So, you need a start-up kit with a bridge, and then you’d like to control that from your voice assistant and maybe the voice assistant’s cloud service doesn’t talk to the cloud service of the lighting bridge […] so it’s all very fragmented.”
The fragmented smart home has prompted years of head-shaking, hand-wringing, and enthusiastic noises from the big players, which outwardly express support for a universal standard that would allow all smart home devices to be managed from one controlling application. It is recognised that standards do not only simplify the user experience and reduce workload for manufacturers; they also bring benefits such as improved network security and energy efficiency.
Over the years, competing standards have sprung up; the most successful include Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Although each has its strengths, none fits every part of the smart home, and none has emerged above the rest as the universal standard. Jon Harros, director of certification and testing programmes at the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), comments: “Innovators begin to develop their own products; [they] very much centralise around their own solutions. Pretty soon they start partnering up with one or two other companies that may have similar interests.”
“But obviously this is happening simultaneously in lots of different areas. So, what you end up with is some very small pockets of innovation happening around the same areas, all starting to grow.”
All these competitors, at last, appear to have realised that they must work together, and are coalescing around one standard, overseen by the CSA.
“It took several years, I think, for the market to realise that as discrete companies you could only grow your business so much,” says Michelle Mindala-Freeman, VP of marketing at the CSA. “And, as those companies all came to some natural realisation, they were able to centre around the mission of the organisation. [There] was a bit of an alignment around a market view: an alignment around the future of technology centring on IP as the common protocol for connected devices as opposed to proprietary methods.”
Most smart home players agree that Matter is the universal connectivity standard the sector has been waiting for.
Matter started life as the Zigbee Alliance, which was formed from hundreds of companies using the standard in 2002. (Zigbee is a way to connect smart home devices, a mesh-based approach in which each node in the network acts like a wireless router). In 2019, it formed Project Connected Home over IP, which rebranded as Matter last year, while the Zigbee Alliance rebranded as the CSA. It aims to build an industry-wide IoT standard and, unlike previous efforts, almost everyone seems to be on board.
Over 500 companies are members of the CSA – including Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, Facebook, Huawei, Qualcomm, and TCL – with more than 200 directly involved with the standard.
“The interesting part is they also want small companies like us – I mean, we are 35, 40 people, we’re tiny – they want us to make contributions,” says Felber, reflecting on Eve’s role within the CSA. “So, this is not a North American thing, it’s not an Asian thing; it’s 200 companies from all over the world […] it really looks like those big players want to stop that fragmentation and for consumers to just buy whatever they want and hook it up easily.”
The result of all this work is Matter: an open-source connectivity standard based on the IP. Matter provides a unified application layer on top of existing IP links – such as Wi-Fi, Thread, and Ethernet – to connect devices without the need for dedicated translators.
The decision for hundreds of companies to unify around IP as the basis for the standard came about as a result of gradual technological advances which have rendered it feasible for smart home applications. Chris LaPré, head of technology at the CSA, explains: “In the last 20 years, IP has been – I don’t want to say too complicated – but the implementation of IP has been too big, too expensive in a silicon sense, for it to make sense for small connected devices. But with Moore’s Law happening in the background, it’s sort of all come together to be the right thing; it was always sort of the right thing but was always too expensive to do. It’s the right time for IP.”
The CSA aims to have the final Matter 1.0 specification, software development kit, and certification program ready for an autumn 2022 launch, with the first Matter-certified devices expected to arrive around the end of the year.
The launch of Matter is highly anticipated. CSA members enthuse about perks such as Multi Admin (which hugely simplifies control over which members of a household can operate certain devices) and the ability to largely bypass clouds (Matter controllers can send commands directly to devices on the IP network, rather than going through at least one cloud before reaching the device).
However, the overwhelming advantage of Matter is its potential to connect fragmented smart homes. Matter-certified products will be ‘plug and play’, guaranteeing seamless communication between different platforms for basic commands.
Users will no longer be locked into certain ecosystems. For instance, a user with a Google door lock would previously be effectively locked into Google’s ecosystem. Going ahead, however, Amazon’s Alexa could be used as a Matter controller to control that Google door lock.
“We think that Matter – as the unifying language of the IoT – will make it much simpler for consumers to choose and enter the market,” says Mindala-Freeman. “The other piece of the puzzle is the unification of the development efforts and the simplification of the development efforts. I think it’s going to lead to more innovation [because of] freeing up incremental resources that have been historically working on IoT protocols one, two, three, four. [Developers] can now go: what’s the next great user experience, what’s the next great device innovation we should be working on?”
There is a near-consensus throughout the industry that Matter is the universal standard the industry has been waiting for. David Owens, an IET fellow, said: “I do think Matter is the standard we have been waiting for; it’s managed to gain approval of the big three: Apple, Amazon, and Google. And it formed out of what was the project for Connected Home over IP, so combines the Zigbee Alliance and others, so it has credibility. Adoption will ultimately depend on delivering compelling customer use cases […] what’s key to that is interoperability, security, and compatibility through standardisation, and I believe that Matter can help deliver that.”
In the beginning, Matter will be restricted to the simplest commands. Matter 1.0 includes: lightbulbs, switches, and lighting controllers; plugs and outlets; locks and garage door controllers; thermostats and other HVAC controllers; blinds and shades; security sensors; wireless access points and bridges; and TVs and streaming video players.
According to Harros, alliance members made the decision to move forward quickly with Matter 1.0. The first specification, therefore, only includes the simplest devices: “They’re all simple packets: turn on, turn off. Cameras and other things […] are out of scope today, but it’s where we’re looking in the future”. The next specification is expected to include vacuum cleaners and EV chargers, while more complex devices, such as AI home cameras, remain further away.
This means that manufacturer apps will still be required for special features not available in Matter. For instance, users can use a Matter controller to turn on and off their lights, but will still need to use a proprietary platform like Apple HomeKit to access adaptive lighting features.
The CSA hopes to enhance the standard with these features in the future. Its representatives explain that it works by finding the set of common features which its members agree can and should be made interoperable, and, as manufacturers contribute their ‘tricks’ to the standard, that set of features can expand. Mindala-Freeman argues that this co-operative approach will not stymie innovation in the sector – quite the opposite.
“The process is a rising tide with boats. You start with the core framework; you get the basic functionality out,” she says. “People are absolutely continuing to innovate on top of the standard. As those features become more common, the standard raises the level of the water for all the boats. And that’s the beauty of the standardisation process. It enables the innovation but then it can standardise that innovation in a common way.”
Matter’s success cannot be taken for granted. One stumbling block is that automations and routines will not work seamlessly across platforms; another is the problem of legacy devices. In many cases, older devices can be upgraded with firmware which can transform, for instance, a HomeKit-only product into a Matter product. However, some older products do not have suitable hardware for these over-the-air upgrades, leaving certain generations of devices ultimately incompatible with Matter – a serious problem when some smart home devices are embedded into the home, such as smart light switches.
These legacy devices can be connected using bridges, which are fully defined within the Matter specification, although this calls for more ‘patching’ by users, for which Matter should mark the beginning of the end.
Mitch Klein, executive director and chair of the Z-Wave Alliance, which is not involved with the CSA, comments: “When Matter launches and there’s the big marketing push […] you want to make sure that the adoption of those products won’t make all of the existing devices essentially irrelevant or non-interoperable. That’s going to be the concern. You can’t have the success of Matter if hundreds of millions of devices no longer work.”
Despite near-universal goodwill towards Matter, it is not a magic bullet for the issue of smart home fragmentation. It remains to be seen whether companies will be willing to lower the walls of their gardens and cooperate with rivals to expand this new standard. So far, CSA members are making the right noises and actions. “What makes it successful are the members: all of the companies who are building the chipsets into devices,” says Mindala-Freman. “And if they don’t do that, then, candidly, that would inhibit its success.”
“We’re all trying to make this work together.”
Z-Wave is one of the two main means for connecting smart home devices (the other being Zigbee, another low-power mesh network). The Z-Wave Alliance has always emphasised interoperability; every Z-Wave-certified device works with every Z-Wave-certified controller. However, it is not part of Matter.
“The Matter launch focus is on IP and the 2.4GHz frequency range, and Z Wave is sub-GHz. We have what’s called [Z-Wave over IP] layer where you can basically fake IP, but we don’t have a native IP and we don’t do 2.4GHz so we weren’t invited in,” explains Mitch Klein, executive director and chair of the Z-Wave Alliance. “That’s not to say we haven’t been in the discussion; we have.”
With the rest of the industry embracing Matter with such enthusiasm, and Z-Wave remaining outside that standard, for the time being, it is worth asking what Z-Wave’s future looks like alongside Matter. Klein is not losing sleep over the prospect.
“When I first came on board with the Z-Wave alliance, which was eight years ago, I was thrown in the lion’s den. The first meeting I had was with one of the analysts and the analyst basically said What makes you think Z-Wave can survive with all this stuff coming at you, with Bluetooth doing this and Wi-Fi doing that, and Zigbee, what makes you think you can survive? A couple of years later I had another meeting with him and he was like I guess I was wrong.”
Despite not being an active participant in Matter, Klein says there is no hostility between the alliances, which have a common goal which they could work together towards the future: “We’re all trying to make this work together.”
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