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What is Matter?

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John Ruiz

John Ruiz

What is Matter, how does matter work?In a world littered with terms like Internet of Things, Zigbee, HomeKit, Alexa and more recently, Thread, picking the building blocks of your dream home automation setup can be daunting. Sure you can buy into the marketing hype of a big brand and strictly stick with their products for seamless compatibility but this approach can box you into one ecosystem. Life in a walled garden might seem fine and dandy but what if a competitor unveils a hot new product with features you’ve been hoping for your favorite company to launch? Finally, you can indulge in these features but only after you bend the knee to their ecosystem and swear off the vast majority of your existing smart home products. This arrangement makes it seem impossible to truly build a good and wide-ranging smart home system without compromises. However, things may turn for the better after some companies got together and agreed to develop a special protocol to at least loosely tie these devices together. Meet Matter!

What is Matter?

Matter is a connectivity standard designed to improve inter-operability across various home automation gadgets. With the market filled with so many smart home products made by numerous big-name competitors, Matter aims to provide an ecosystem where these products can find common ground and communicate with one another to deliver a better user experience for all customers.

Matter leverages  existing technologies including good ol’ Internet Protocol (IP) and emerging mesh network protocol Thread. The idea of this umbrella branding approach is to eliminate the confusion in building a harmonious home network by having a simple “Matter” certification where all Matter-certified devices can interact. Think about a Google Home controller interacting with an Alexa-powered device, with Matter bridging the gap. That’s the dream but both need to comply with Matter’s recently launched standards.

What Makes Matter Different?

Matter is promoted by several tech titans including Amazon, Apple, Google, Huawei, Samsung, LG, and more than a dozen other companies. These companies are part of the 20-year-old CSA (Connectivity Standards Alliance) which is also now responsible for certifying Matter products. Matter also presents itself as a friendly haven for participants to implement this new technology to their products with its royalty-free model. Because manufacturers only have to pay for the certification costs as the software development kit is fully open source, several popular brands in the smart home space like Signify (manufacturer of the Philips Hue family of smart lighting products), Eve, Nanoleaf, and many others are committed to putting this technology in their future and even present products.

Local network over Cloud interaction means privacy, security

Another key differentiator is how it focuses more on the local network over the cloud. The cloud is still a key component in the smart home sector for convenience purposes but putting emphasis on local networks is a big win for privacy advocates and helps greatly on the security side of things. With so many major companies experiencing data breaches, keeping potential Internet gateways secure is more important and smart homes are often seen as an attack vector for potential hackers. If Matter can help tighten security without sacrificing so much of the convenience, I’m all up for it!

The local nature of Matter may also alleviate the notion of smart home products only being as useful of the services powering them. If you ever tried using an Amazon Echo Show without an Internet connection, you’ll know exactly what I mean! The idea of having a product still functioning even if the brand closes shop and shuts down its cloud services is awesome and is a good step towards solving the world’s e-waste problems.What is Matter, how does matter work?

When Will Matter Arrive?

Matter officially launched its first version of the standard on October 4, 2022, and its certification program is currently open. Since any product that meets the certification requirements can support Matter, the arrival dates can vary depending on an individualcompany’s product roadmaps. Some companies have already added Matter support to their products. I’ll be discussing the specifics in a separate section.

What About Other Smart Home Standards?

Matter does not impose any requirements on manufacturers to drop their existing and sometimes proprietary smart home softwares. (Of course that would be anti-consumer and would cause much confusion for people who already finalized their smart home setups.) Matter is designed to complement other standards and perhaps eclipse the other standards if the technology continues to thrive and more companies embrace the technology. It is too early to tell what the future holds for these standards but I would wager these smart home standards will still be around.

USB-C is a good example of what Matter hopes to achieve. USB-C is a physical connector standard which is also used by a good number of big tech players as it hopes to be the de facto standard for various connection types. However, even with some government-backed mandates in some parts of the world, other connection types continue to exist even if they are decades old.

Even though a bunch of companies getting together to nurture a new and potentially secure standard is a huge win for consumers, these companies are still competitors gunning for top marketshare so there is certainly an incentive for brands to develop their proprietary technologies further and I believe it’s truly important as it brings about the real innovations. Going back to the USB-C example, Apple’s own Lightning cable is living proof of how lucrative a proprietary standard can be, even with its flaws.

Will Matter Work With Existing Devices?

Yes! Matter is a protocol after all, so manufacturers can help prop up the standard by developing firmware updates for their existing or current products. However, Matter does have a set of hardware requirements as well so don’t expect all the gadgets in your home to receive updates. The smart home device must feature at least one network layer technology such as Wi-Fi or Thread. Some manufacturers may opt not to issue updates to discontinued products or other products currently limited to receiving only security updates.

Amazon

Amazon echo dot with clock 5th gen, reviewAs one of the founding members of the CSA, Amazon has pledged to bring Matter support to 17 Amazon Echo products in December. At launch, only Android devices can utilize the standard over Wi-Fi with iOS and Thread support slated for next year where Amazon is expected to rollout the update to more devices.

Apple

When Apple rolled out iOS and iPadOS 16.1 back in late October, Apple also released a 16.1 update to their HomePod and HomePod mini smart speakers with Matter support baked in. This essentially transforms these walled garden speakers into Matter controllers where other Matter-certified products can finally play ball with them.

Google

At the time of writing, none of Google’s speakers and Nest products work with Matter. But that hasn’t stopped Google from launching a Public Preview of their new Google Home app which will pave the way for easy pairing with Matter devices. For now, we just have to count on Google’s word to expect the update “soon.”

Samsung

Samsung is one of the few companies famous for throwing every piece of tech imaginable across virtually all product categories. The Korean giant also played a crucial role in developing Matter so it is no surprise they are fusing their SmartThings home automation brand with Matter functionality. Samsung didn’t provide any dates yet, but you can expect an update to the SmartThings Android app as well as TVs and even refrigerators to serve as Matter hubs.

How Do Smart Home Hubs Fit In?

The beauty of Matter is how it doesn’t take away anything that your existing smart home hubs possess. This means you don’t have to give up your muscle memory habits and use your favorite Z-Wave and Zigbee products. But these protocols aren’t sitting still either as the companies behind these technologies aim to build special bridges to allow legacy products to be part of the growing Matter constellation.

With all the promises and goals Matter hopes to achieve, the end result still depends on the execution. Matter isn’t just a single standard even if it presents itself as such; on the back end, there are several protocols both old and new, intrinsically weaved together and companies must work together to see the vision through. Matter is no stranger to delays so give it time for the standard to develop and evolve and hopefully next year we can shop at a vast marketplace filled with Matter-certified devices!

Got questions about Matter, or want us to delve into another topic that’s burning a hole in your brain? Post your comments, questions and thoughts in comments below.

John Ruiz

John Ruiz

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