There are still a lot of unknowns with regard to the new Matter interoperability standard, but we have a much better sense of what we don’t know in the wake of a panel hosted this week by Silicon Labs. During the event, which I moderated (and was paid by Silicon Labs to both create and moderate), we heard from product developers about their concerns. We also received some new information from Michelle Mindala-Freeman, head of marketing for the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which was formerly known as the Zigbee Alliance and which oversees the Matter protocol.
I am not snarking about our lack of knowledge. There is real value in seeing where the limits of the current standard are and what we still need to build before Matter-certified products hit the market at the end of the year (or even more likely, in early next year). I was impressed at how open the panelists were with their concerns over the number of certifications they might need, the speed of the certification process, how Matter might affect their product strategies, and whether or not it will “drive a wedge between products and the ecosystem providers,” as Wyze’s Senior Director of Technology and Services Frederik Delacourt suggested.
Let’s start with what we know about certifications, in particular the certification process. Mindala-Freeman said that so far about 30 devices have gone through testing events, which were focused on testing individual devices for compliance. But the next testing event will focus on testing devices as part of a cluster of Matter products, with a goal of producing a published standard by the end of this year.
What we don’t know on the certification front is whether a developer will still need to get certifications for their devices in addition to the one they get from Matter. If you have a Matter device that uses Thread, you may need a Thread certification and a Matter certification. Indeed, Frederik Delacourt, senior director of technology and services at Wyze, said that right now some ecosystem players (by which he means Amazon, Apple, and Google) still want to get products certified for their ecosystems even if they are Matter-compliant. “The message we’re getting is for the moment they don’t know exactly what it means to have Matter compliance, so they are still maintaining some of their position in terms of certification,” he said. “And over time we think they will adjust their programs.”
Apple this week said Matter-certified devices will work with HomeKit, so Delacourt’s fears about needing ecosystem certifications may be addressed sooner rather than later. Mindala-Freeman also added that the CSA is working with other standards organizations to help reduce the certification load. “A lot of these finer points are still in discussion,” she said. “The goal is simple. The goal is to make it as easy as possible, to not duplicate efforts, and to try to keep costs down.”
We also got more details on the security practices enshrined within Matter. Mindala-Freeman discussed the distributed ledger and clarified that because the devices will have encryption, people getting onto your Wi-Fi network will neither have the ability to see which devices are on the network nor what they talk to. But that will add complexity for developers, said Nathan Dyck, a product manager with Nanoleaf. He said that building devices and getting them on the distributed ledger will take work.
His points were underscored by Johan Pedersen, product marketing manager from Silicon Labs, who said that device makers will have to learn how to take advantage of silicon improvements — such as secure vaults — and figure out how to manage the certificates associated with Matter’s security needs. We also covered how Matter will handle over-the-air security updates, which remains unclear.
The Multi-Admin Feature
Now for the things that we don’t yet know. Many of the biggest questions about Matter are around the multi-admin feature. By promising a common data model for devices to talk to each other, Matter will let companies address and control devices made by other vendors. That means many popular smart home devices — such as lights, locks, blinds, TVs, HVAC systems, security sensors, and controllers — will work across multiple ecosystems (the multi-admin feature). It also means that consumers should be able to take a Matter-certified light bulb and control it from both Amazon and Google.
But we don’t know how, exactly, that is going to work. Dyck from Nanoleaf said that yes, one device will be able to talk to all ecosystems, but “how all of the flows that go in between them, a lot of that is being fleshed out.” Nor do we know if Matter-compliant devices will work as part of a service or network with non-Matter-compliant devices.
This may seem academic, but for something like a home security monitoring service that relies on cameras, it’s a big deal. Cameras aren’t covered under the current Matter specifications, and won’t be for some time. Wyze’s Delacourt, which makes cameras and offers a security service, said, “There is no way you can bring…a device that’s not defined by Matter into a Matter network. That’s not going to work.”
If that turns out to be the case, it could leave consumers with bifurcated networks and developers wondering how to adopt Matter and keep some of their services in the short term.
The future of Zigbee and Z-Wave
One thing I did take away from this event is that Zigbee devices, especially newer ones, will likely get an update that brings them into Matter compliance. Jim Kitchen, VP of product management at Comcast, is confident its existing smart home infrastructure, which is already in its customers’ homes, will be upgraded via a software update. He also said it will be easier to update to Matter because Comcast is built on top of the 802.4.15 radio standard that Zigbee and Thread use.
I asked Pederson if Silicon Labs was planning a chip to help bridge Z-Wave and Matter (it already offers one to bridge Zigbee and Matter). His reply? “For Z-Wave, we have exciting things coming both on the silicon side but also for the bridging capability, because being able to bridge between Z-Wave and Matter will be important.”
However, Mark Jenner, director of technology alliances at Allegion, expressed doubt that all of his company’s locks would be updated or even updateable. So I expect we’ll see some stranded devices in the Z-Wave and Zigbee camps.
In conclusion, for all that we’ve learned so far this year about Matter, it’s clear that a project this ambitious will need some time to get everything together and deliver a specification that will tell us what we want to know. Namely, how will Matter help us clean up the mess that is the smart home today?