This week, Project Connected Home over IP became Matter, and with the new name came new information about how it will provide interoperability between certain classes of smart home devices. Now that the protocol is back in the spotlight, I’m getting a lot of questions from readers around what will happen to their existing gear, what will happen to various individual radio protocols, and what all of it means for the industry at large.
So I’m pulling everything into one big Q&A story with links to our prior coverage and thoughts on the standard. For a full rundown, read on!
What the heck is Matter? Matter is a smart home interoperability protocol that was launched by Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, and others back in December of 2019. The goal was to create standard data models for popular smart home devices so these devices could work with one another without having to figure out which ecosystem “talked” to the particular device a consumer wanted to buy. Instead of a consumer wondering if a Nest thermostat was HomeKit compatible, Matter will ensure that a Matter-certified thermostat will work with any Matter-compliant sensor or controller.
What the heck is Thread? Thread is a radio protocol developed back in 2014 by the folks at Nest to connect devices to the internet and to other devices. Along with Wi-Fi, it’s the chosen radio protocol over which Matter devices will communicate. Low-power devices that send small amounts of data will use Thread, while devices with access to power and those that have higher data needs will use Wi-Fi. Kevin wrote an excellent article about Thread and how it works here.
What does this mean for Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Bluetooth? For more than a decade, Z-Wave and Zigbee have reigned as the primary connectivity standards for sensors in many alarm systems and high-end home automation setups. Bluetooth over the past few years also joined the cluster of radios, with Bluetooth mesh. None of these will disappear overnight, and in the meantime we’ve explained what we think will happen for Zigbee and Z-wave here and here as well as what the role is for Bluetooth going forward here.
What does this mean for my existing smart home gear? The answer to this question very much depends on the company that makes your devices. Signify, the company that makes Philips Hue bulbs and WiZ-branded smart bulbs, is treating those product lines very differently, for example, updating existing Hue gear to work with Matter and putting out new WiZ gear next year that will be Matter-compliant, but not updating existing devices. And Google is hinting that we’ll hear more about its plans next week at Google I/O, but other brands are mum. Personally, I would feel better if my WiFi- and Thread-based devices were getting updates, as well as any devices that have a bridge containing Wi-Fi-based or Zigbee-compatible radios. (The Thread protocol uses the same radio standard as Zigbee.) But even if your gear isn’t Matter-compliant, I don’t expect it to stop working immediately. You’ll likely see a graceful degradation and a loss of support over time. I also expect that you will be able to use Home Assistant or other software to link your Matter devices to your existing setup.
I use Home Assistant; can I still use it when Matter devices hit the market? Paulus Schoutsen, the founder of Home Assistant, said via email that he’s hopeful with regards to Matter. He emailed, “We haven’t seen the spec yet, but it is supposedly based on dot dot, which itself was based on Zigbee 3.0 – which we already support. The spec is kept in a private repository that we can’t access. We’re working on joining the alliance to get access.” He also said that Silicon Labs is working on a chip that would support both Zigbee and Matter, which means users of Home Assistant, could expect hardware that will bridge their Z-wave gear to Matter. Theoretically, the developers building for Home Assistant hubs (you can buy one or load the software onto your own machine) will be able to tootle over to the Matter GitHub repository and create drivers that will let users bridge their Home Assistant setup to include Matter devices. Kevin even found instructions for building your own Thread border router in GitHub, which means people using Home Assistant could buy the radios and build the connectivity infrastructure needed. Sure, this is for hardcore DIYers, but that’s who is using Home Assistant, Open HAB, Homebridge, and some of the other open source automation platforms.
I make sensors—what does Matter mean for me? The answer here is both good and bad. The good news is that companies making sensors, lightbulbs, switches, locks, and more can focus on their core competencies and forget having to build apps, figure out cybersecurity, and architect cloud infrastructure. The bad news is that for many of the existing hardware or lighting companies backing Matter, adding a digital component to their products represented their chance to create a new business built on services or customer data. With Matter that becomes more challenging, because customers won’t need to download apps to get their shiny new connected devices onto their networks and working for them. They’ll be able to just buy a Yale lock, get it on their network, start using HomeKit or Google to build routines, and never need anything else. Sure, manufacturers will try to add cool features to their apps and will likely force users to register the devices using those apps. However, with Matter companies that want to build services using connected hardware no longer have to go to those hardware makers to build a service. I expect companies to split into making low-margin commodity Matter devices and higher-margin Matter-compliant devices that focus on physical craftsmanship and prestige branding. Doing so will work well for visible devices such as locks but likely less well for things like sensors and traditional light bulbs.
I am a commercial installer—what does Matter mean for me? This is a tougher question. Companies such as Crestron and Control4 are members of the Matter working group while Ezlo and Savant are not. By commodifying the underlying hardware in locks, lighting, TVs, HVAC, and security sensors, the overall cost of such devices should fall, because much of the complexity of building an app or integrations disappears. Theoretically, by making it easier for a consumer to install these devices in their homes and program them, professionals become less valuable. However, plenty of products — such as sound systems, security cameras, and appliances — aren’t encompassed by the Matter standard. And given that most pro installers work on expensive homes with complex needs for busy people, I don’t expect Matter to eliminate that business. But it will likely cut some of the margins for distributors and professional automation companies, and prevent them from moving too far downmarket.
Want more Matter information? I will be moderating a panel on behalf of Silicon Labs on June 8 that will feature panelists from Wyze, the Connectivity Standards Alliance, Allegion, Comcast, Nanoleaf, and Silicon Labs. I’ll be asking what comes next for the industry and what this means for various players. You can register here if you want to know more.