The Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) held a launch event for the Matter home interoperability specification on Thursday, and amid the flurry of self-congratulations there was a bit of Matter news and a ton of release information detailing when devices would get updated to Matter and how. Most notably, new releases will come out twice a year and the organization already has working groups in place for eight new device types: security cameras, robot vacuums, big appliances, energy management devices, Wi-Fi access points, smoke and carbon dioxide detectors, environmental sensors and controls, and ambient motion and presence sensing.
Tobin Richardson, the CEO and president of the CSA, also threw a stake in the ground related to device security. Against the backdrop of the White House pushing for a cybersecurity label for consumer IoT devices, Richardson noted both that the CSA had delivered a presentation at the White House label meeting and that it was trying to harmonize security standards from more than 60 regulatory bodies — a clear signal of the CSA’s ambitions. But the biggest takeaway for me was that, even after three years of planning, the industry still doesn’t know what the smart home should look like.
As far back as 2014, I was giving presentations to various industry groups about the smart home, and in those presentations I would list four core things that were keeping growth of the smart home in check. They were: the cost of connected devices, a lack of clear use cases, a lack of interoperability, and the complexity associated with managing a network of such devices.
Matter in its current version only solves part of two of those problems: the issues of basic interoperability and helping with onboarding and managing devices. So while that’s a start, it doesn’t really help resolve the key issue of the smart home, namely that most companies view smart homes as a way to sell more individual devices and generate recurring revenue. But the story of the smart home isn’t about gadgets; it’s about delivering value though services or a coherent experience. And the first year or three with Matter isn’t going to get us closer to services or the compelling use cases that will drive adoption and continued use.
It’s painfully clear that when most people think about the smart home, they are too focused on a device or cluster of devices that would be in one. There is no room in the current Matter spec for context (although the promise of presence detection in later iterations is exciting). The ability to sense when people are in a room or away from the home aren’t embedded in the standard. Nor is a robust understanding of how home infrastructure might react with devices really articulated. And ways to protect different levels of privacy in a home full of potential spies isn’t even part of the conversation.
At Thursday’s event, it was clear that the folks presenting onstage were still hung up on the core competencies of their own organizations’ devices and how to push sales of said devices. Schneider Electric pitching a smart home energy management system was a perfect example of this, especially since energy management isn’t even part of Matter yet. The co-founder and COO of Tuya was pitching commodity devices that are built on the Tuya platform
That’s to be expected, but it’s still disheartening, because if I bring the angst I feel around much of today’s technology and spread it across tens or hundreds of devices in my home, that’s a nightmare scenario. I currently have 50 WiFi-enabled devices on my network and several dozen bulbs and sensors attached to hubs and gateways in my home. And while Matter will help with the basics, I really can’t recommend that anyone else live like I do. It’s exhausting to have glitches and boring to program devices when new gadgets come in and I must add them to my routines. I’ve laid off reviewing and installing new gear in the last year because I’ve set my bar so much higher than before for devices.
With Matter, more people will get to where I already am today. But while I’m sure the industry is salivating at the idea of selling 50 new products to individual consumers, even as they become easier to install and manage, most of these devices either don’t get used or when they do, don’t provide much value. I find it tough to justify a smart lock when a lock with a keypad would work just as well, for example. Connecting my stove and oven provided a moment of interest, but neither are getting feature updates often enough and are not smart enough for me to justify keeping them connected or troubleshooting them if they fall off the network. And I dumped my mailbox sensor because after having it connected, I realized I didn’t actually care when the mail arrived.
This isn’t a Matter problem. This is a vision problem. The smart home shouldn’t exist to sell gadgets; it should exist to make users’ lives easier. So if it’s an oven that just needs me to put in food that it cooks automatically, or a more complex energy management system that’s trying to optimize my home’s energy use and consumption on my behalf throughout the day, it needs to require very little time to set up and almost zero additional effort from me on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t need my devices to bombard me with a million notifications about movements detected or doors unlocked. I need a way to customize the information I find relevant and have that surfaced in a glanceable manner. Alerts should be based on things that need my attention, not excuses to try to engage me with an app. Matter has the seeds of this, but it’s unclear how far the more than 500 members will want to let smart home devices fade into the background and become part of a larger system that truly adds value, not just gimmicks.