As the official Matter launch approaches, questions about the new connected device standard remain. For example, how will security be handled? How easy will it be to switch smart home ecosystems with Matter devices? What do developers need to know in order to support Matter?
We got answers to these and other Matter questions from industry leaders during a Silicon Labs webinar this week, on a panel hosted by Stacey. The panelists included Chris DeCenzo from Amazon, Michele Turner from Google, Mike Nelson from DigiCert, Karl Jonsson from Wemo, Makarand Joshi from Schneider Electric, Rob Alexander from Silicon Labs, and finally, Michelle Mindala-Freeman representing the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which leads the Matter initiative.
If you’ve been following the development of Matter as we have, you already know what the standard’s goal is: getting connected devices from different brands and platforms to seamlessly work together. That means you could use a Matter-certified Amazon device with Google Home, for example, or bring Google devices into a HomeKit environment.
And that will be good for consumers, as such cross-platform support will reduce confusion related to both device purchases and installation. It will also be good for developers, because they will have to build to one just standard instead of to multiple standards, like they do for the big vendors. Although as we saw in the panel, device makers will still need to tweak their software to work optimally with Google or, in some cases, to work with Alexa.
How is Matter security implemented?
So what did we learn? First up, we got a lot of new information about how the Matter standard will handle security. Turns out it’s not that different from how connected hardware is currently kept secure, and is similar to how web security has been enabled for years.
As Mike Nelson from DigiCert explained, all Matter devices will have a unique identifier, similar to a website domain name or IP address. And like a website, Matter devices will work with certificates that verify the device type and brand. So you’ll know that you have an “authentic” device that isn’t posing as some malware-infested bot. Each Matter device that communicates with other Matter devices will also know that both are what they say they are.
Matter will rely on PKI, or public key infrastructure, to manage the certificates. The certificate data will be stored on a secure enclave, which is a protected, secure chip. Best of all, Matter-certified devices will encrypt all data running through them, both in transit and at rest. These days, most smart home products we recommend do the same, but it took a few years to get to this point. With Matter, your data will be encrypted by default.
What’s a Matter controller and why will I need one?
In this day and age of smart homes, most people are familiar with the concept of a hub. Think of it like the “brains” of your smart home, responsible for managing device communications, automations, remote access, and any other processing tasks as required.
While there will be standard Matter devices — think lights, locks, and sensors — they won’t be Matter controllers. Controllers will be like the smart speakers and smart displays of today. In fact, Amazon and Google have already announced that some of their existing speakers and devices, such as Wi-Fi routers and displays, will be upgraded to Matter controllers.
So you may not need to buy a new Matter controller to act as a hub. Instead, your existing hub might gain Matter controller functionality. These hubs will run routines, handle the local communications between all of the Matter devices on a network, and will likely act as a bridge for low-power Thread devices to hop over to a Wi-Fi network.
While a home can have multiple controllers and those controllers can come from different vendors, they may not communicate with each other once Matter arrives. That feature is still under discussion.
What changes for developers and device makers with Matter?
For some device makers, little will change, as Matter will be handled at the application layer. However, connected devices that don’t currently have some type of secure enclave hardware may not be upgradable to Matter. But new iterations of those products will include this trusted silicon.
In terms of radio connectivity, Matter communicates over Wi-Fi or Thread, with Bluetooth still around for device setup capabilities. Which doesn’t mean smart home devices that use Zigbee, Z-Wave, or some other radio protocol won’t support Matter. It does, however, mean that Matter bridges will be needed to support them. Indeed, Ikea this week announced its own bridge, which will connect its current Tradfri line of products with Matter devices.
Developers won’t have to completely learn a whole new stack to support Matter, as much of what they may know from Zigbee device profiles will be carried over to Matter. In the meantime, the platform companies are building APIs to assist with the Matter app experience; earlier this month, Google announced Matter API support to ease the developer transition, for example. The open source Matter code repository is also available for any developer to view on GitHub.
When you move a Matter device from one platform to another, will it work exactly the same?
Another open question about Matter devices is whether or not they will keep all of their existing functionality if users switch from Google Home to Apple HomeKit, for example, or from HomeKit to Alexa. And there’s no perfectly clear answer — yet.
While the Matter standard will expose all of a device’s capabilities and states to other devices, specific features not covered by Matter may not carry over during a platform switch. That means a Matter-certified smart plug that measures energy consumption might only share its on/off capabilities with Matter devices, as energy consumption information isn’t yet supported by the Matter standard.
Which makes sense. If Amazon created a feature for a light that HomeKit didn’t support, for example, how would your HomeKit home know how to use it?
That may change going forward and if so, a majority of features should still work. However, device brands and app makers will have to communicate which features, if any, will be lost (or gained) when moving a Matter device to a different ecosystem.
There’s a final issue worth mentioning. Matter will enable local control of devices through third-party controllers, which means we could see the launch of devices that work with Matter and that don’t require an app to operate. During the panel, Karl Jonsson of Belkin, which makes Wemo devices, indicated that the new Matter devices Wemo was producing would work without an app. In fact, Wemo doesn’t really care about the app experience. It just wants to sell well-designed devices.
While that’s not a common sentiment among many device makers, it’s worth pointing out that in the wake of Matter, we’re going to see a lot of companies build the bare minimum for certain devices. Companies that want to avoid becoming commodity hardware makers are going to have to develop services and software that make downloading their app or buying their more expensive devices worthwhile.
Finally, according to a representative from the CSA, the Matter standard is still on track for a fall release. So get ready for all of this to become real in the coming months. I can’t wait.
Stacey Higginbotham contributed to this article.