During the summer of 1959, the U.S. took the American National Exhibition to Eastern Europe, with the aim of showing communist nations the kind of advances made possible by capitalism. In one display was a demonstration kitchen featuring centrally controlled lights, a robot floor cleaner and a moving dishwasher that not only cleaned and dried dishes, but even put them away.
But the so-called ‘Miracle Kitchen’ was just that—a fantasy constructed less from technology than from trickery, with the primary aim of persuading the audience that the future belonged to the West.
Fortunately, genuine strides forward in home automation were not far off. Less than a decade after the Eastern European event, Westinghouse engineer James Sutherland designed the Echo IV, a prototype automation system that could control the temperature and turn on appliances in his home. And by 1984, the term ‘smart house’ had been coined by the American Association of House Builders.
Since then, a flurry of wirelessly-connected smart devices have rolled into the home, bringing automation and convenience to domestic life. Think of connected speakers, light bulbs and blinds, all able to be remotely activated by smartphones or dedicated home assistants. By some estimates, there are around 175 million individual smart homes in the world today and there will be more than 13 billion smart home devices in active use by 2025.
Though it sounds impressive, at least some of this progress is a mirage. While there’s no doubt that individual connected products do provide homeowners with benefits, the promise of the fully integrated smart home has fallen short, with consumer experiences of the technology commonly disjointed, inconsistent and downright irritating.
The core issue is that smart home devices often don’t work well together. Products built for one ecosystem won’t always work as planned in another. For example, a digital voice assistant from one manufacturer often encounters issues when trying to configure and control smart lights or a home alarm system built by another vendor. It’s a problem that’s not going away as hundreds of brands operate across dozens of device types in the smart home space.
For modern homeowners, most of who are well-adapted to using technology but who have been groomed to expect ‘plug-and-play’ performance, the interoperability of today’s smart home devices is a recipe for disillusionment. Frustrations commence early, even before buying the product. Prior to making a purchase, consumers must decipher which devices are compatible with which ecosystems, networks and home assistants.
Because that’s far from easy, some resign themselves to staying within the one ‘walled garden’, solely buying products compatible with a single manufacturer, such as those targeted at Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s HomeKit. But in doing so, they limit their choice of products and suppliers. Others opt for the ability to choose from a wider selection of manufacturers, but then take on the unenviable task of troubleshooting and seeking workarounds to the inevitable compatibility and interoperability issues that arise. And even where a device boasts compatibility with multiple ecosystems, it still may not support all features on all ecosystems to the same degree. These adventurous consumers learn to live with the disappointment of an unrealized dream—that of the fully integrated smart home.
The problems radiate beyond consumers. To minimize interoperability and fragmentation issues, product developers and manufacturers create largely identical versions of their products but tweaked to work with different ecosystems. This a duplication of effort, additional cost and unnecessarily increased complexity. Even retailers and distributors are affected, with display and storage space taken up by these duplicate versions of the same smart home product.
The issues with interoperability have been known and talked about in the smart home industry for years. Failure to overcome the challenge has seen a state of malaise set in, even amongst analysts and commentators closely tied to the industry. “The smart home is dead,” declared renowned expert in all things IoT, Stacey Higginbotham, in her publication Stacey on IoT. “I thought that we would have solved interoperability challenges by now, and made the connected home easier for mainstream consumers to adopt ... I was wrong,” she wrote. “Heck, even I sometimes struggle to get my devices to work with Google Home or the Amazon Echo and doing so is literally my job.”
The impact of these struggles is an industry growing slower than had been hoped or forecast. “Although there have been studies about this technology in recent years, the adoption rate of smart homes is still low. One of the largest barriers is technological fragmentation within the smart home ecosystem,” describes a research paper in academic journal Sensors. In a report last year, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) observed that revenues in the smart home sector were “flat”, and in a prior publication declared that the smart home was “not yet meeting its value proposition”.
But amid this gloom, a new hope for the smart home has arisen. A hope that tackles directly the issues of standardization and interoperability that are souring the experiences of smart home consumers and thwarting progress for the industry at large.
The name of this new initiative is ‘Matter’, a connectivity standard for the smart home. Developed by Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), and formerly known as Project Connected Home over IP (CHIP), Matter can be thought of as a ‘common language’ to unite disparate ecosystems and bring smart devices closer together. An open-source implementation of the standard is available.
Matter works by building on top of existing smart home wireless connectivity technologies Thread, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, and the Ethernet wired protocol by providing a unifying application layer. By creating a standardized specification, Matter will give manufacturers a common data model to develop to, ultimately guaranteeing the compatibility and interoperability of their products.
For consumers, Matter promises greater simplicity. Instead of having to work out if a Nest thermostat is HomeKit compatible, or if an Echo device can control a third party smart lock, consumers can simply seek out the Matter seal of approval on devices they purchase and have confidence they will work together – from set-up through ongoing use. “All of the Echo devices will be able to control all of the Matter devices that are on your home network, regardless of what networking technology they happen to use,” says Chris DeCenzo, principal software development engineer at Amazon. With a single standard to build to, the product development process for developers and manufacturers is also streamlined, while still enabling them to take advantage of integration with multiple smart home ecosystems. A standardized specification for connectivity also supports greater reliability.
One of the strongest selling points for Matter is the immense show of force and unity behind it. More than 200 companies have come together to develop Matter and solve the problems of interoperability. This includes major smart home technology platforms like Apple, Google, and Amazon, large and small device manufacturers such as Eve, Yale, Leedarson, Netatmo and Tridonic, and wireless connectivity specialists like Nordic Semiconductor.
For a standard to have successful uptake and long-term viability it must have industry buy-in, and Matter’s level of support gives it immense credibility and momentum. The stature and breadth of the alliance has rightly been described as an “unprecedented industry coalition”. For many of the industry players involved, the incentives are plain to see. Having invested considerably in the smart home category, the prospect of a standard that could turbocharge the growth of the industry is highly appealing.
These companies have also realized the role they must play in driving the change needed. “It’s up to us to simplify the smart home, and to start we must change the way device makers build products,” says Michele Turner, senior director at Google Smart Home. “There should be one standard that simplifies selection, setup and control, and makes it easy for our partners to create products and experiences for your home.” Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the CSA, goes further: “This is a Renaissance”.
Matter is more than just a unifying language. It can also be thought of as a bringing together of world class approaches into a single specification, using an open source approach. “We use best-in-class contributions from market-tested smart home technologies, such as those from Amazon, Apple, Google, the Connectivity Standards Alliance, and others,” says the CSA. “By leveraging these technologies’ contributions, we are able to accelerate the development of the [standard] and deliver benefits to manufacturers and consumers faster.”
Various connectivity standards have emerged as the home automation and smart home industry has matured over the years, among them Z-Wave and Zigbee, while protocols such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have also found prominent roles. Each has carved out a niche, yet none has successfully emerged as a default or primary standard for the smart home market. This is reflected in the fragmentation that consumers experience at device level.
Matter solves this by providing interoperability between existing connectivity protocols—specifically Wi-Fi, Thread and Ethernet. Moreover, since Matter is IP based, it provides developers with a common and well established foundation for communication.
Thread is one of Matter’s primary connectivity protocols because it is a secure wireless mesh network specifically developed for the smart home by the Thread Group (which included Google as a founder member), and as a result it is tuned for reliability and low latency. Thread also works particularly well for lower power devices such as sensors and door locks – the kind that must run for several years on small batteries and are categorized as ‘Sleepy End Devices’ (SEDs). Lower power Matter devices will typically run across a Thread network, while devices with higher power and data bandwidth needs will use Wi-Fi. Thread border routers—key parts of the network which bridge from the Thread mesh to Wi-Fi, Ethernet or the Cloud—are also mainly mains powered.
Matter will initially support the Thread, Wi-Fi and Ethernet protocols for device-to-device communication with Bluetooth LE—primarily because of its mature smartphone interoperability—being used for commissioning new devices to the network.
Setting up new devices has long been a pain point for smart home users. Matter members are tackling this challenge with gusto; a key example is Amazon’s Frustration-Free Setup (FFS). According to Amazon’s DeCenzo, FFS is a “zero-touch” experience designed to enable consumers using Amazon’s ecosystems to simply take a device out of the box, plug it in, and wait for automatic connection to the smart home network. Amazon says it is working with leading brands to launch FFS on its Matter-certified devices.
The ‘Multi-Admin’ feature of the Matter spec will enable connected devices to be easily controlled by multiple smart home ecosystems. Multi-Admin liberates customers from single-vendor walled gardens and gives them the freedom to mix-and-match according to preference – for instance, using either or even both Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa voice assistants to control a Nest thermostat.
The introduction of Matter is also influencing chip makers, with silicon and software being optimized for the new standard. The chip plays a critical role in the performance of a smart home solution, says Finn Boetius, a Product Marketing Engineer with Nordic Semiconductor. “In Matter applications, chips need to run the actual application—that is the switch, lightbulb or smart hub—as well as handle multiple wireless protocols at the same time,” he says. “If you have a battery-powered smart home device you’ll want it to be based on a chip that’s optimized for low power but has plenty of power to handle the application.”
While the potential of Matter is clear, it is going to take some time before its realized – but not as long as you might think. Boetius says Nordic customers are actively developing Matter devices today using the company’s nRF52840 and nRF5340 SoCs, which support Thread and Bluetooth LE. And with the company’s recent expansion into Wi-Fi, future Nordic Wi-Fi products will also support Matter. Nordic has also integrated the latest Matter development tools into its nRF Connect SDK.
The company is playing a pivotal role in the continued development of the Matter standard and its promotion. Of the 200-plus companies involved in Matter, Nordic engineers are among those from only nine companies that can make changes to its implementation on code repository GitHub, says Krzysztof Loska, Technical Product Manager at Nordic. The company also prominently showcased Matter’s interoperability capabilities at the recent CES 2022 exhibition, through a demonstration comprising a Google Nest Hub controller, Google Pixel phone, Eve smart plug, Leedarson RGBW light bulb, Netatmo contact and occupancy sensor, Yale door lock and Nordic Thingy:53 ‘weather station’, all running on the Matter standard across a Thread network. Loska also points out that the Nordic SoCs already in the field powering Thread devices can take advantage of an over- the-air software update to become fully Matter compliant. This means manufacturers that embraced Thread early and have already shipped thousands of units can seamlessly upgrade those products to the Matter standard.
As the smart home market starts to boom, security will become ever more important. The expanding number of disparate device manufacturers entering the industry, each with varying commitments to product security, potentially creates unwelcome opportunities for cyber-attack.
But with Matter gaining force as the de facto smart home standard, it becomes easier to create a baseline of standardized security expectations. “We are secure by design, we take a zero-trust approach, we use specific industry-standard encryption technology, and every device gets authenticated before it joins the network,” says Michelle Mindala-Freeman, head of marketing at CSA. “Every message is secured on the network, and Matter supports secure over-the-air updates.”
As a standard, Matter will be continually inspected and strengthened. CSA says Matter’s security is supported by a proactive community of members that perform activities such as threat modeling and mitigation.
Privacy also comes into sharper focus in a world of greater device interoperability, which will likely seegreater data sharing among devices. Matter has published a set of ‘Matter Privacy Principles’ that make clear its focus on privacy, particularly in its commitments to data minimization and ensuring data shared between Matter devices is restricted to the purpose of supporting the specific operation of those devices. The design of Matter, which allows devices to operate locally without needing to send data to the Cloud, is also a significant advantage in maintaining privacy.
Matter is scheduled to be completely rolled out in the middle of 2022 with the release of the final Matter specification, SDK and a certification program. Matter- certified devices should become available to consumers by the end of 2022. Previously published timeframes have been pushed back. The pandemic undoubtedly played a role, but the larger truth around these delays is the scale of the challenges involved. Creating a specification to support interoperability across several distinctly developed ecosystems involving large stakeholders understandably requires precise crafting and substantial testing.
Once the standard is bedded down, Matter is expected to drive improvements in the quality of smart home products. With the issues of interoperability resolved, device manufacturers will be free to focus on their core competencies, rather than on apps and architectures to support onboarding of devices to divergent networks and ecosystems. As walled gardens crumble, customer lock-in will also fade away, meaning manufacturers will need to work harder to attract customers.
When it does arrive, Matter will herald a new dawn. After being little more than a niche obsession for enthusiasts and a hope for the rest of us, the smart home finally looks set for the masses to live the dream.