Once you get past all the puns relating to Google’s Matter (I just can’t resist sprinkling them through this article), what we have here is a serious attempt to make the world of home automation a whole lot easier. That is, to create a smart home that’s as easy to set up, as to use. It promises to make things easier for device manufacturers, personal assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and of course Alexa, and, perhaps the best part, easier for us consumers of home automation solutions.
To bring me up to speed, I was invited to chat with Elissa Murphy. She’s a VP of Engineering at Google, working on the Matter project. I learned a lot, and continue to pepper Elissa with more questions as I think of them!
So, what is Matter? It’s another layer – like an operating system. The idea of Matter, simplified to its basics; Matter is code that device manufacturers will add to their devices. This includes a wide range of devices, from your Wifi router, to smart door locks, door bells, and smart thermostats, and of course, my favorites –smart color (and white) light bulbs…
How does it work? Device manufacturers add the code. Matter sits in between the devices code, and that of other devices. The device manufacturer only need support Matter – (see, Matter matters – sorry), instead of providing direct support for different operating systems, such as Apple’s HomeKit, or Alexa, or my Eero 6 mesh Wifi routers, or Android, for that matter!
We’re not just talking doorbells here, so it’s sort of “one code, to rule them all” instead of that “One Ring to rule them all” fantasy with Hobbits.
Basically “everyone” adds Matter compatible code, instead of having to support multiple standards. A doorbell needs only Matter support, so that it can interface with your Router. I’m not certain whether major players providing your primary internet connection will also support Matter in the future, but it would also seem likely. After all, these days, getting your router to work with your internet provider is typically no more straight forward that configuring a light bulb to a router.
Matter is intended as the next great standard for Home Automation aka, the Smart – or with Matter – the Smarter Home for Automation.
Will Matter Really Matter? Or is there a chance that this will be another standard, that doesn’t cut it in the long run – aka “It doesn’t really Matter”
Besides existing home automation standards, other attempts at standards have often come up short – Google launched Android as an open system, which had lots of benefits, and some real limitations, but it did not end up with a standard for all smart phones. Apple, of course went their own way, so we have two major standards for smart phones, worldwide (and Blackberry, etc.) Consider that smart phones would also have a Matter layer, since it’s those very phones (and tablets) that are an integral part of today’s Smart Home.) configure, address, and can control most of your home automation gear.
This time, however, it looks like Matter really will become a worldwide standard! What’s different? The big players are on board. I can’t speak for all major players, but consider – in addition to Google – of course, both Apple and Amazon are on board! And that’s just the start of a very long list of significant players. I discuss Zigbee standards below. Zigbee with 200+ device manufacturers supporting the Zigbee Alliance, (including Philips Hue), which has changed their name to the Connectivity Standards Alliance, and are supporting Matter. (One could say that Matter matters for Zigbee product owners. (It may allow for some impressive backwards compatibility for Zigbee devices. That would be a real plus. It’ a question I’ll address as I learn more, hopefully at the CEDIA show next week in Dallas.)
“Houston – Do we have a Problem?” And, Have We Been Here Before?
I haven’t yet found a major, murky issue relating to implementing Matter. So, no, Houston, we’re good for now (but we’re still a long way from being in orbit).
Wait, there are 100,000,000s of smart devices out there already, and right now they don’t support Matter. But, “I assume” (rarely a good idea), that at least a percentage of the newer existing devices may be software/firmware upgradeable via their Apps. What percent will be upgradeable? I have not even a good guess, but I’ll assume, for example that my older LIFX smart color bulbs (4-5 years old or so), won’t be upgradable, after all, they weren’t upgradable to support Apple HomeKit. Perhaps their newer (even Smarter) bulbs will be able to become compatible with Matter.
I’ll write more on backwards compatibility as time progresses and more is known. And perhaps build a list of brands, with some comments.
Have We Been Here Before? Not Exactly!
The goal here is to simplify home automation at all levels – consumer, developers, manufacturers… So, no, this isn’t a first time, or even a 3rd time.
Consider: Well more than a decade ago, two standards groups appeared: Zigbee (often associated with smart lighting, but also many other devices), and Z-Wave – usually associated with security – including most of the smart locks, doorbells, window and door sensors out there for a very long time. Both systems addressed (and competed), addressing some Wifi limitations – such as both supporting mesh networking that’s been so sorely lacking in current Wifi standards. With mesh, every device is actively passing along commands – to each other device in range (up to roughly 60 feet). They both avoided the problem of Wifi – too far from your router, and no signal. I’ve had Z-Wave devices working outdoors, and through multiple walls, and 100+ feet from my Wifi router– no problem.
Note: Z-Wave and Zigbee aren’t by any means the first standards – We oldies types remember the X-10 system which goes back to the ‘70s (60’s?). And, while intended for commercial use mostly, the DMX lighting standard, which is still around today, and also half a century old.
As mentioned, I understand Matter also supports mesh which is great. I replaced my old router 2+ years ago (which did Wifi and Z-Wave – with three Eero Pro 6 mesh Wifi routers that work together to cover larger homes and offices. They work well, but Wifi had no standards, so each manufacture who bothered to try mesh, did it on their own.
But, both “Z” standards required that devices support their standards which basically competed. Almost no products supported both (except a couple of Wifi routers.
We are moving into a world where many security devices which were Z-Wave, are being replaced by Wifi devices – that’s a plus – allowing for Matter to be a real plus. Zigbee, has joined the Matter alliance, so it seems that should mean support for older Zigbee devices, including, for example the hub for the extremely popular Philips Hue lights.
There seems to be plenty of momentum, so I am uncharacteristically optimistic that Matter may truly simplify home automation and building out your own personal Smart Home, thanks to what looks to be a highly viable standard.
One thing that is unlikely to change: All those Apps you have for your smart devices, be it thermostats, smart doorbells, light switches, or smart garage door openers (even with geo-fencing), aren’t going away anytime soon.
I think of using Alexa or Siri as a good example. Sure I can tell them to turn on/off, and dim lights. I can tell them to adjust the temperature, but most devices have lots of special little extras, that Matter almost certainly won’t address.
For example that color smart bulb manufacturer – Matter (like Zigbee) will support the white functions, power and dimming, but will it allow for full support like choosing from 16 million colors, or starting a device 15 minutes before sunset… Or slow fades of 5 or 30 seconds, or color changing???
Exploring where Matter quits and device Apps are still needed to access features and benefits, will be a key part of Part 2, so stay tuned… I’ll just add that I’ll be mighty disappointed if Matter doesn’t support a good bit more functionality than Zigbee or Z-Wave, so that less is left to Apps, so that some devices that need them today may find that Matter handles all the functionality needed.
Bottom Line (Part 1). My take on Whether Matter Matters
Like the guy rumored to have fallen off the top of the Empire State Building (long ago), was heard shouting all the way down: “So far, so good; So far, so good; so far so…
“On paper” Matter looks excellent. That they have pretty much most of the critical major industry players on board, which is the key to a new, useful standard to be widely accepted and utilized – aka a key to success, but the other half of that will require that Matter itself is truly competent and excellent at simplifying. If we still have to do 90% of setting up features in separate Apps, then Matter would be suffering from the same problems that plagued Z-Wave and Zigbee. Good, but only so far…
Then there’s the other questions – how long before we have a host of new devices that support Matter, that are shipping? And as mentioned what are the compatibility upgrades available to existing products. Those of us who’s homes are at least moderately automated, include early adopters, gurus and influencers. Given not everything out there will be able to be updated to be compatible, it’s important that a lot of those devices are – after all, it’s folks like me, using their Alexas and Siris, and Assistants (and apps) to run their many devices that “newbies” turn to for advice, so I think it critical to maximize support for older devices.
We’ll see how all that plays out, but so far Matter’s looking pretty good, for early on. But there’s much to consider, for my next articles. For example, VP Murphy pointed out that Matter encompasses a lot of typical home automation products, but, isn’t yet targeting the world of smart appliances, but will no doubt get to that. Plenty to write about, going forward.
Part 2 will publish shortly after the CEDIA show (9/29/22 – 10/1/22) where I’ll be meeting with a number of key “players” that relate to home automation. Thanks for “listening”. -art