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Making Your Home Smart is Getting Easier

A new standard called Matter is ending the confusion about compatibility

a stylized picture of a house featuring symbols representing various smart devices
GETTY IMAGES

The individual devices that make an everything-is-connected-to-the-internet smart home haven’t always been easy to work with.

Some won’t make nice with products you’ve purchased or talk to the smart home platform that you might have by default because of that first video doorbell, remote garage door opener or smart thermostat you bought. Collectively, these devices are part of the Internet of Things (IoT) that encompasses everything from smart lights, plugs, security cameras, speakers and TVs to robot vacuums.

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Lack of compatibility, the complexity of making sure devices will work together and concerns about privacy are among the reasons many consumers haven’t bought into the vision of a brainy smart home.

Hundreds of companies sign on to Matter

That could change now that the tech industry has reached a kumbaya moment. A reputable who’s who among industry titans, including Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung, that created the most popular smart home platforms, is pushing an emerging global standard known as Matter. The standard essentially promises that you won’t bring home the modern-day equivalent of a VHS tape for your Betamax video recorder.

As a consumer, you’ll still choose a smart home platform and interact with products through apps, controllers, hubs or your voice. If you like Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home or Samsung SmartThings, you can keep it.

If Matter lives up to its promise, devices from rival brands will seamlessly and securely work together. For example, you might ask Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri to change the temperature on your Google Nest thermostat.

Not only are the biggest names in tech behind Matter. About 300 companies, including several start-ups, are embracing the initiative across a gaggle of products, which must meet certification requirements established by an industry group known as the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), formerly the ZigBee Alliance.

In early January, dozens of companies showcased Matter-capable products at the CES tech fest in Las Vegas. They include Nanoleaf, which will have a series of hands-free smart lighting products, and Eve Home, which will sell Matter-ready smart plugs, door and window sensors and more early in 2023.

Some early Matter-certified products are already in stores. But most are coming this year and beyond.

A standard 3 years in development

Getting rival tech companies to agree on a common language, or protocol, for devices is no small, um, matter. Behind the scenes, the technical work that resulted in the Matter certification standard has taken roughly three years, according to Tobin Richardson, CSA’s president and chief executive.

“Customers want a smart home that works for them as they go about their daily lives. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complex,” Amazon wrote in a company blog. Customers don’t want to be tech experts to make it work.

Even now, you may hear of other wireless protocols, including a low-power networking technology called Thread that works in tandem with Matter. Bluetooth, a standard for short-range wireless transmissions; the longer-range Wi-Fi; and Zigbee, a short-distance, low-power wireless network that connects devices, also get along with Matter.

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Some questions about Matter answered

You may wonder how the Matter standard will affect products you already own or want to buy.

How will I know if a smart home product is Matter-ready? Just as you may see a logo for a Bluetooth- or Wi-Fi-capable device, product packaging will display a Matter logo to signify it works out of the box with any other Matter device. The logo resembles a trio of arrows all pointing to a center.

Do all types of smart home devices work with Matter? Not yet. Under version 1.0 of the specification, supported devices include blinds and shades, door locks, garage door openers, lights and lighting, smart hubs and bridges, smart plugs, thermostats, wireless access points and certain air-quality, contact and security sensors. Some features of smart TVs are included.

Phase 1 is a transition, and several other product categories are left out for now. They include cameras, door and gate closures, advanced energy management products, environmental sensors, motion- and presence-sensing products, robot vacuums, smart refrigerators and other home appliances, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. But they’re all on the Matter road map.

That said, it’s fair to assume continuing limits on how much control any single Matter-capable device has over the functions and features of another. Companies will continue to try to woo you into their camp rather than the other guy’s.

Are the smart home products I own obsolete? Not necessarily. Nothing will stop you from using the products you’re happy with as you always have. But you’ll be able to enable updates to make some products Matter-compliant.

Late last year, Amazon launched Matter over Wi-Fi on 17 Echo devices, light bulbs, plugs and switches. In the spring, Amazon plans to expand Matter support to iOS and Thread, as well as additional device types, remaining Echo smart speakers and the company’s eero-branded routers.

“With Matter enabled across more than 100 million Echo devices already in customer homes, we’ll help remove adoption barriers and make it easier for more customers to buy and use Matter devices,” Amazon blogged.

Google recently enabled Matter on Nest devices and Android.

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“It’s OK if (a smart home product) is not upgradeable because the standard … enables companies to create bridges that will allow you to connect your existing devices into the same Matter network as new Matter devices,” says Michelle Mindala-Freeman, CSA marketing and member services head.

How do I set up these products? Very little changes if you already add devices via Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home or Samsung SmartThings-based apps or hubs. Matter itself does not have a consumer-facing app.

“If you buy different smart home products today, there’s probably as many different ways to set them up as there are products,” Mindala-Freeman says of the status quo. “Part of the (Matter) spec is everyone has a QR code. So there’s a really simple, straightforward, consistent way that products get set up, helping people over that first hurdle of ‘If I buy it, am I going to be able to make this work?’ ”

Apple added Matter support as part of iOS 16.1, the core software on iPhones, which came out in the fall. When you pair a Matter accessory, the software will prompt the user for permission. A camera viewfinder will appear, so you can scan the Matter code.

matter logo
This logo, which sometimes is shown in white type on a black background, will tell you that a product meets Matter standards for compatibility and security.
Connectivity Standards Alliance

Once you’ve established your smart home, you won’t have to manually enter your network credentials each time you add a new Matter device. Nor must you replicate the names of your devices each time across different apps.

“That’s a big difference for consumers,” says Aaron Emigh, chief executive of Brilliant, a Silicon Valley-based provider of smart home controls and automation systems. Because its upcoming lineup will be Matter-compliant, products will work easily across your smart home network.

Is Matter secure and private? Although nothing is foolproof, security and privacy are part of the CSA certification process for Matter.

Every Matter device must be authenticated before it joins the network. Encryption, sensitive information converted into secret code, is employed. And devices must have the capability of being upgraded over the air should vulnerabilities surface.

Of course, you’ll continue to benefit from the baked-in security on products you buy, such as Knox, in the case of Samsung products.

When adding a Matter accessory, Apple “iOS maintains the highest levels of privacy and security, ensuring the user is always aware of which accessories join their home and is in full control of their smart home network,” the company says on its website. “Just like with users’ location information, contacts, calendar or photos, apps must request access to add an accessory to the users’ home.”

Adds Brilliant CEO Emigh: “Where I think Matter does help a lot with the security side is (in) providing an assurance that companies are being conscientious about their security practices.”

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