This story was originally published on Friday, August 4, 2023 in my weekly newsletter. You can sign up for that newsletter here.
Just last week I had my third frustrating experience with a Matter device. But it’s time I stop blaming the Matter spec for the challenges I’m facing. My issues are really with the ecosystem vendors. Which is ironic, since these vendors are the ones that in 2019 banded together to create Matter to enable smart home device interoperability.
After more than two decades covering technology, I’ve seen how large companies can get behind a standard and then sabotage it from the inside, either intentionally or not. I’m not here to say that Amazon, Google, or Apple are intentionally making the rollout of Matter a crummy experience for consumers, but I am here to say that their decisions are making Matter appear broken.
One of the big points of potential confusion with the Matter ecosystem is that it divides devices into two camps: controllers and devices. It also offers two options for device connectivity: Thread or Wi-Fi. This provides ample opportunity for consumer confusion when choosing devices that work together.
If a consumer buys a Thread device but then runs out to buy a Matter product that only works with Wi-Fi, the two devices will need a controller to communicate with each other. This conundrum actually has nothing to do with the vendors, and the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which manages the Matter standard, is aware of it.
Maybe one day we’ll see more clarification or education from the CSA around labeling Matter devices to help address the potential for consumer misunderstandings and eventual product returns. But there are other areas where the Matter experience is falling short, and the blame seems to lie squarely with the vendors.
Let’s start with the obvious. Many vendors have rolled out support for Matter in an uneven manner. For example, Apple experienced a bit of a hiccup updating its Home app on iOS to support Matter, which made it challenging to add Matter devices using an iPhone for months. That’s fixed now.
Amazon started its support for Matter devices focused only on lights, switches, and smart bulbs. And it only supported control of these devices over Wi-Fi until May, when it started adding Thread support as well. Today Amazon supports in-wall switches, alongside light bulbs, plugs, sensors, thermostats, and locks. An Amazon spokesman told me that Amazon will add support for more devices over time.
Google has made a big effort to bring in new device types over time, and has relied on Matter to help add more functionality to its overall smart home platform, but it still doesn’t support all of Matter’s device types. Sam Gabbay, the CEO of Tuo, a smart button maker, says that Google had supported his Matter-based smart button, but then something changed, and Google no longer supports generic switches. Also, for months the iOS version of Google Home didn’t support adding Matter devices, but this is fixed now. Google didn’t return my request for comment.
Meanwhile, SmartThings has been incredibly proactive as the owner of a Matter-based controller. The company has worked with Google, Apple, and Amazon to make sure Matter devices on SmartThings controllers can be controlled across different ecosystems, as the Matter standard had intended. This required Samsung, which owns the SmartThings platform, to be proactive and work with each company to ensure all the relevant credentials and data were shared properly.
And this gets us to a second point of potential sabotage (or simply a potential point of consumer confusion): Thread credentialing. When it comes to Thread devices, users can sometimes get a Matter device onto a network only to find out that the network the device is on isn’t visible to a controller. What has likely happened is that the new Thread device has been set up in its own separate network because the consumer chose to add a Thread device using a different controller.
That’s what happened to Kevin when he was trying out some lights from Nanoleaf. After he added them he realized that they couldn’t communicate with other Thread items because they were on a different network. Some folks accused him of setting up the lights on the “wrong” controller, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that if someone buys a Matter-certified set of lights and tries to set them up using a Matter-certified controller, the process should work.
Kevin’s challenge is a known issue. It’s because of the way certain vendors are handling Thread networks. It’s possible and even likely that a home might have several Thread border routers capable of translating between different Thread devices and the Wi-Fi network. But having multiple thread networks causes a challenge if the devices on one network can’t talk to devices on another network. The Thread standard allows for this, but the issue is how to share credentials.
Frank Oliver-Grün, a German journalist, breaks it down in this blog post:
In Matter, however, the ideal of complete neutrality has not yet been achieved. Currently (as of July 2023), there are Border Routers that only work in certain ecosystems. If you combine models from different manufacturers, you may end up with parallel Thread networks instead of a common mesh in which all devices are connected.This is a result of the way Matter ecosystems manage the access data (credentials) to such Thread networks. Amazon, for example, stores them in encrypted form on its servers and sends them to the device via a secure connection during setup. Apple uses the keychain of iOS for this, Android the corresponding counterpart of its Google Play Services. Samsung has developed Knox Matrix.
To join a Thread network, new Thread devices – including Border Routers – must have these credentials transmitted. If this exchange does not take place within the same ecosystem, but between Apple and Google, for example, one company must share its information with the other – in a secure and controlled manner. Google and Samsung SmartThings have made agreements in this regard, Apple and Google as well.
The post goes on to note that Amazon doesn’t share credentials yet, which means that devices set up using an Amazon Thread network won’t be able to communicate with devices connected on an alternative Thread network. This is a challenge for companies building Thread devices. Gabbay mentioned this to me in our conversation, and Nanoleaf calls the issue out in its documentation.
Will Amazon change this? I don’t know. The company has said it’s keeping the rollout of Matter slow because it doesn’t want to break things or confuse its millions of customers. It has already worked with Samsung and other major vendors to make some elements of Matter seamless.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the CSA said via email that the organization encourages companies to support as many devices as possible, but that, “Decisions on adding features or support for specific device types are up to individual members [sic] companies based on their own product roadmaps and timelines.” Which means that companies with controllers don’t have to bring in full support for products over time.
So there is still plenty of work for Amazon, Apple, Google, and the CSA to do. Matter was supposed to make the smart home work better for mainstream consumers. Today it’s still hit or miss if your Matter experience will be good or bad.