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It's only a matter of time before Matter fixes the smart home, right? Maybe not.

Google Amazon Fighting
Google Amazon Fighting (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

If you own any smart home gadgets, you know how fragmented and frustrating it can be to get them working together. Even the most technically proficient among us struggle with the complexities of the smart home in its current state.

Even notable brands like Nanoleaf have been struggling to create products that not only work well by themselves but also work well with others. The problem is that the main ecosystems people use — namely, Apple, Google, and Amazon — all have different ideas of how the smart home should look and operate.

In effect, they all speak a different language. Just like in real life, not all languages translate into another language very well. One might have a word that simplifies a thought or feeling, while the other language requires an entire sentence to convey the same idea.

This conundrum is exactly why Matter was built. What started as Project CHiP in 2019 was later rebranded to Matter in 2021 but has seen significant delays since its unveiling. Matter promises to be a single standard for smart home communication, but its delays keep companies like Nanoleaf from debuting new and exciting products.

After all, why release something now only to reinvent the wheel with an update once Matter eventually comes around? It doesn't make any sense, and Matter's delay further complicates an already complicated and convoluted industry.

Development purgatory

Nanoleaf's CEO, Gimmy Chu, told me in an interview at CES that the company has delayed plans for new products and updates so that they can coincide with Matter's eventual release. They want to do it right the first time instead of releasing something now, only to have to update them again later down the road and risk more fragmentation.

In the meantime, Nanoleaf has been trying to build in as much of Matter and Thread's functionality into its existing products to ensure it's ready the moment that the standard is.

They want to do it right the first time instead of releasing something now, only to have to update them again later down the road and risk more fragmentation.

Matter is the language devices speak in its simplest form, while Thread is the pipeline used to deliver the message. Think of it as talking to a friend on the telephone.

Most of the best Nanoleaf smart lights have what's called a Thread border router packed inside.

Thread was designed so that multiple devices in your home act as routers — called border routers in the Thread world — which means there should be no single point of failure. So if your Internet connection goes down, for instance, Thread devices theoretically wouldn't care much since they can still talk to each other just fine.

While Thread has been around in some form since 2014, relatively few products utilize Thread connectivity. Given that Thread is an integral part of what should make Matter a great standard, seeing companies like Nanoleaf pave the way forward is encouraging.

This means that Nanoleaf products won't just work well with Matter-ready products when they launch but will ensure that they're an integral part of your smart home going forward.

Is Matter the next RCS?

Matter Logo

Source: Business Wire (Image credit: Source: Business Wire)

In fact, I was surprised to learn that Nanoleaf had to build all of the Thread functionality into its Android app on its own without the ability to hook into the Google Home or Amazon Alexa apps or ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Apple HomeKit already has Thread support built-in and can be used readily to build support into apps with a few relatively simple command hooks.

Companies have to wait for things to be finalized before jumping in headfirst and trying to build products with Matter support before Matter is actually finalized.

Nanoleaf is stuck waiting on the industry to get its act together in a similar way to Google's struggles with RCS messaging. Earlier in the decade, Apple wasn't willing to wait for everyone to agree on a standard and forged ahead to form the blue bubble iMessage cult in 2011.

Meanwhile, Google waited for years for carriers to agree on a new messaging standard — a reality that would never happen — and finally debuted its half-baked RCS messaging strategy in 2018.

Nanoleaf doesn't want to be stuck in development purgatory for years like Google was. But this time around, Nanoleaf isn't alone in its quest as Google was in the case of RCS messaging. It's got most of the entire smart home industry on its side — over 200 in the Matter initiative, specifically — and all of them are working toward a goal that is in the interest of all.

Because of this, companies have to wait for things to be finalized before jumping in headfirst and trying to build products with Matter support before Matter is actually finalized.

To me, USB Type-C is the perfect cautionary tale. Back when USB Type-C was becoming a standard, several companies like OnePlus jumped on board the moment it was announced.

USB Type-C is the perfect cautionary tale for what could happen if companies use Matter before it's finalized.

The result was a series of phones that didn't work right with all USB Type-C cables and chargers, causing significant confusion for years until the standard was finalized and products followed the actual guidelines. In the worst-case scenario, phones that misused this standard could be bricked entirely if they didn't use a specific cable or charger — the exact opposite experience that a standard is supposed to deliver.

That doesn't need to happen with Matter. The smart home is already fragmented and disjointed, and Matter is supposed to fix that, not make it worse.

Putting it off until tomorrow

Matter Logo Sunset

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

The industry at large recognized this problem and sought to solve it by creating a brand new connectivity standard — called Matter, of course — specific to smart home devices.

While most of us were busy worrying about what's happening outside our doors in 2020, the IoT (Internet of Things) industry — that's a sort of catch-all term for all the random connected devices we have lying around our homes — was trying to figure out how to work together for the first time ever.

In 2021, Matter was delayed until the "first half of 2022." That quietly slipped to a "mid-year release" at CES 2022.

That's a big deal in a world run by the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon, where choosing the right smart home ecosystem is a real struggle depending on what devices you want to use.

Matter's promise is that the central hub you choose to operate your smart home with — be it Amazon, Google, Apple, or one of those fancy new Samsung smart home hubs — won't be the thing that holds your smart home back or dictates what devices you can use.

In a Matter home, everything should work as if it were designed specifically for your exact setup.

But Matter has been delayed several times since its announcement. In 2021, Matter was delayed until the "first half of 2022." That quietly slipped to a "mid-year release" at CES 2022. Plenty of smart home companies talked about Matter at CES but have little to show for it.

In fact, until this thing solidifies and delivers a workable software development kit (SDK), we're not going to see any actual products or updates that benefit from the lofty goals we've heard so much about, and that, precisely, is the problem.

Building the bridge

Matter Bridge

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

So, what's the holdup? What's taking so long, especially if Thread — the network protocol that Matter uses to talk to other smart home devices — has already been around for nearly a decade?

Diplomacy.

In short, getting over 200 companies to agree on a single standard isn't an easy thing. As companies like Google and Amazon jumped on board in 2019, the formula for creating Matter became more complicated than ever. The Zigbee Alliance group of companies was prepared to craft something, and there's no doubt that initial plans have been changed time and time again since then.

Getting over 200 companies to agree on a single standard isn't easy.

But the protocols and technical details likely were the easiest part of the discussion. The root of the problem lies in the account systems that all companies use. In particular, companies like Google and Amazon use these account systems to gather massive amounts of data on their customers. That's literal money in the bank to these companies, who sell your information for top dollar to advertisers.

Matter's entire purpose is to provide a way for devices to finally connect without using proprietary commands, communications protocols and locked behind individual accounts. Matter should free up your smart home from the constraints of walled garden ecosystems, and that's not something the big guys are readily willing to give up.

Without knowing all the details and the behind-the-scenes deals that have to take place for this sort of standard to take shape, we can surmise a couple of things to help tender expectations going forward.

Android Matter Lightbulb Pair

Source: Google (Image credit: Source: Google)

There's little likelihood that you'll be able to ditch your device accounts even after Matter launches. But you will be able to perform most — or maybe even all if I'm being my usual optimist self — commands via Matter, and that's probably what really matters in the end.

That means that all cameras that work via the Matter protocol should be displayed in your Google Home or Amazon Alexa apps. All video doorbells can pipe the voice through your smart speakers, no matter who makes them. All lights will know what "warm white" means when you ask to change the color. Yes, even your smart coffee maker will understand what a "brew" command means no matter what device it originates from.

There's little likelihood that you'll be able to ditch your device accounts even after Matter launches.

But that doesn't mean you won't need an Airthings account to set up your smart air quality monitor or that Govee's lights will suddenly be able to connect to your Thread network without some sort of authentication system.

In the end, it's unlikely that Matter will solve the account situation for initial setup, but it should erase the need to have 47 different apps installed on your phone just to properly control your smart home and its array of devices.

Until then, though, you'd better hope your smartphone has enough storage space to keep up with your smart home addiction.

Nicholas Sutrich
Senior Content Producer — Smartphones & VR
Nick started with DOS and NES and uses those fond memories of floppy disks and cartridges to fuel his opinions on modern tech. Whether it's VR, smart home gadgets, or something else that beeps and boops, he's been writing about it since 2011. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @Gwanatu
7 Comments
  • Matter is vapour. What's more, the video doorbells and cameras mentioned in the article aren't planned to be supported by matter even if it ever does come out.
  • No, vapor is just one type of matter. 😜 Video is coming in Matter Spec V2: that’s been confirmed for months now, hasn’t it? See The Verge. Video is much more complex than a motion sensor or a thermostat: recognition, bandwidth, security, privacy, storage, streaming, etc. A shame it’s later, but better to release now so companies like Nanoleaf can actually move forward.
  • Matter specifically includes BLE for native, unified commissioning. You shouldn’t need any third-party apps to get devices working or authenticated or connected. It’ll work with Google Home, Amazon Alexa, HomeKit, SmartThings, Tuya, etc. Google has already released their developer workflows for Matter—no device-specific app is used for commissioning. https://youtu.be/8KsFU_gqnUI
  • Sigh. Your internet being up or down has no relevance to Thread routers. Thread routers are there because thread is a low-power/short range radio for battery powered devices that won't reliably go through a couple walls so routers will use WiFi to make the "long haul" across the home and battery powered Thread devices only need to reach the closest router. As for the internet being up, They are IP based. IP devices can already talk to each other if (big if) the API is set up so they talk to each other. Spoiler: Matter devices don't talk to each other. They talk to one or more controllers, which may be local or in the cloud. A matter switch won't talk to a matter bulb directly. In the "politics" is killing Matter:
    Matter 1.0 smart plugs don't support power monitoring. That's a feature that's been table stakes for a decade or more. The Zigbee DotDot cluster libraries that Matter is based on has power monitoring. A *lot* of devices on the market already do it. So why doesn't Matter 1.0 have it? I suspect it's because Google or Amazon won't support power monitoring on day1. This gets to the video doorbells. Video is irritating, but it's a solved problem. What's not solved is how to handle the video. Apple refuses to let Blink/Ring/Nest cameras always upload to their cloud; the cameras have to let the user be able to turn that off and force the video to be on-premise only. Amazon & Google refuse to let anyone turn off the tap of that sweet, sweet video feed. Hence, video doorbells are stuck in limbo.
  • Matter seems to maintains Thread’s mesh that allows for device to device connections. At least that’s what’s been demonstrated, with Thread to Thread connections: https://youtu.be/v_285vCHifw I’m still unclear what even is a Matter “controller”.
  • That's only for routing at the mesh level, not at the Matter API level. Thread is just the network. Any ip-compatible API can run on Thread. Thread devices could use MQTT as an API (like used in Tasmota) , Zigbee-over-IP , Zwave-over-IP or HomeKit. Matter, AFAIK, does not support device-to-device commands (API level). By this I mean device A sending a command to device B directly. This would be like zwave, where associations let a switch control a bulb directly without involving the zwave controller or Tasmota devices, which allows a wifi Tasmota smartplug to issue a command to a wifi smartbulb using WebQuery and rules without directly involving the MQTT broker.
  • The current diversity of protocols and connections is why I moved to Home Assistant for my Home Automation. It's already a pretty much everything under one control system. Even when Matter is added to the mix, I'll likely still keep HA for the UI and control aspects. Matter should make it easier, not worrying so much if there's an integration for a specific product line. I'm just waiting to see how Apple, Hue, and the other usual suspects mess it up.