This story was first published on Sept. 16, 2022 in my weekly newsletter.
After participating in a panel on Matter at Silicon Labs’ Works With event on Tuesday and conversing with attendees throughout the event, I think the initial response to Matter is going to be tepid at best and downright aggravated at worst.
One person I spoke with, who declined to be named for this article, said they had the feeling that, given the delays and the constant influx of new members to the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which led to ballooning features requests, the CSA decided to just push something — anything — out. While I imagine the CSA’s thinking was probably along the lines of “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good,” based on my conversations, it may be that the 1.0 version of the standard may not be that good.
Part of the reason is because getting light bulbs to interoperate isn’t really the goal of people who want to buy into the smart home. Rather, they want the home to actually be intelligent, and that level of features will require several elements that Matter isn’t going to solve at the start.
So without any further ado, here are the five ways that Matter won’t work as expected. (For more on the panel, and a kinder view on Matter, check out Kevin’s story from Wednesday.)
1. Consumers will still need a lot of apps: One of the initial promises of Matter was that consumers would be able to add a device — like Amazon’s Echo — to their smart home controller but wouldn’t have to download a special app for every outlet or light switch they bring into the home. But at launch, and likely for a couple of years as the standard gets more robust, consumers will still need apps for anything beyond the basics, including installation. Even my panelists realized that this was the case.
2. Consumers won’t be able to control video cameras, appliances, video doorbells, or robotic vacuums: Those devices aren’t supported in the initial version of the spec, and won’t be for a while. How long, exactly? It’s not clear, but think version 2.0 as opposed to 1.2. Other specialty features of smart plugs, such as electricity monitoring, won’t initially be supported. Nor will lighting recipes. That is why you’ll need to download that device-specific app.
3. It will be hard to add a bunch of existing devices to more than one controller — or even one controller: Matter is going to make it easy to add a new light bulb to the smart home, but if a user tries to bring, say, more than 50 in one go, there are going to be issues, according to Jim Kitchen of Comcast. Comcast plans to update its gateways with Matter, and the existing devices on homeowners’ networks will continue to work. Mostly this will happen by keeping those devices on their existing Zigbee networks and simply doing any Matter communication in the gateway.
That said, I suspect someone like me, with a hodgepodge of devices and systems, is going to find the transition rough. And it will likely continue to be rough if I plan to run Google and SmartThings as my controllers. Such a multi-controller situation will lead to fights between the two that will need to be resolved. The good news is that the Matter working group is aware of the situation and Mark Tekippe from Samsung said the working group is continuing to work on ways to easily diagnose any issues.
4. Users will struggle with complicated routines: When it comes out, Matter is going to have the basics. And given all the concerns about getting devices from more than 500 member companies to play nicely across the millions of possible permutations, it’s likely that anything more than the basics will break. Again, while this situation will get better over time with subsequent versions of the standard, it’s still a bit of a punch to the face for folks who were hoping Matter would solve the interoperability challenges throughout the entire smart home.
5. Developers will still have to build for multiple ecosystems: One of the original pitches for Matter was that developers would no longer have to support multiple Works With-style programs for the big ecosystems. And indeed, Matter-certified devices will work with HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, SmartThings, Google, etc. Except again, those are only the basics, and as we’ve seen with Google and Amazon both embracing more in-depth experiences, developers will need to make sure they keep up to date with Google’s Home Device SDK and intelligence clusters or Amazon’s Ambient Home Development Kit. During the panel, Kevin Po of Google said those features are additional and that some companies will not choose to use them, but my hunch is that since consumers are jazzed more about truly smart homes as opposed to programming a million routines, most device makers will need to hop on board.
I’m still bullish on Matter, but it’s clear that the vision from 2019 when the protocol was first announced has shrunk in scope and in the meantime, the CSA has been caught out by the delays in its launch. What worries me is that consumers will find the experience of Matter devices at launch to be not at all worth the fanfare that preceded it. And they will likely be right.