The smart home has come a long way — from a movie fantasy to a fairly mundane reality for a lot of regular folks in recent years. However, even though smart home devices have certainly become a lot more affordable and increasingly popular over the last decade, the process of getting set up with a smart home is still a lot more complex than it needs to be.
The main problem today is that there isn't just one way to do a smart home with the major platform owners — namely Apple, Amazon, and Google — all having different ideas about how a smart home should function. These brands have different walled gardens for smart devices to operate in and they don't speak to each other, meaning that buying decisions can be overly complicated for shoppers, while end-users get locked into a particular brand's ecosystem.
The upcoming Matter standard appears to be poised to be the next step in the evolution of the smart home, removing even more of the barriers to entry, making systems more interoperable, and ultimately making the whole smart home concept more accessible to more people. Its end goal is an Apple-esque "it just works" system, but will Matter actually transform the smart home as we know it? It's unclear.
Why do we need Matter?
In order to understand the benefits Matter could bring, we really need to look at why we need such a unifying standard.
Right now, there are three major players when it comes to smart home standards: Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit. Of course, there are hundreds of brands making all manner of smart home devices, but the chances are they'll each plug into one or more of these systems eventually.
In all likelihood, a person will pick one smart home platform and stick with it, only buying products that work within that system. Right now, you can mix and match smart home systems in your home but you would have to set up your smart accessory with both Alexa and HomeKit if you wanted to be able to control it with a smart speaker from either brand.
It's also not all that straightforward for the average consumer to pick up something like a smart bulb in a store and know how well it's going to work, nor is it easy for a consumer to move between smart home ecosystems if they want to experience something else.
The status quo is also not ideal for manufacturers of smart home accessories who have to develop their products to work with multiple different smart home systems if they want to offer wider compatibility. For HomeKit in particular, that's meant that far fewer devices are available on the market as most makers settle on Alexa and Google Assistant as the platforms of choice.
Matter is designed to solve these problems by unifying smart home connectivity under one label. Now, before you start picturing the classic XKCD comic on the proliferation of standards, Matter actually has the buy-in of the major players in the smart home space, including Apple, Amazon, Google, and many more, so it's highly likely that it will become a reality.
Whether or not it lives up to its lofty goal to take the complexity out of the smart home remains to be seen.
Why Matter is good news for HomeKit
As previously mentioned, HomeKit has lagged behind the other big smart home ecosystems in terms of adoption by smart home accessory makers. Whether its rules are too strict or the HomePod's market is too small to justify working on a third protocol, it's still true today that Alexa and Google Assistant support are the de facto options, with HomeKit being a bonus for most smart home products.
With Matter, this issue should melt away and the availability of HomeKit-enabled products should increase substantially as product makers can implement only the Matter spec and offer compatibility with all three major platforms. That means that many of the products that support only Alexa and Google Assitant should start playing nicely with the best HomeKit devices that we have already.
Better yet, having product makers focus their energies on integrating just one standard should hopefully free up more time, money, and resources to put towards creating new and better products and experiences.
There also appears to be no sacrifice when it comes to privacy with Matter either, as local communication will be the default, and a cloud connection to the manufacturer's service is purely optional. Since privacy is a key reason to choose HomeKit over another ecosystem, I'm glad it's been an important consideration for Matter, and Apple's direct involvement no doubt aided this.
What Matter could cost you
Though a unified smart home future is appealing, it's not without its drawbacks, especially in the short term.
While some companies have announced backward compatibility with Matter for existing devices, like Aqara has for its M1S and M2 Hubs or existing Philips Hue bulbs, it's not yet clear how many of your current smart home accessories will get an update to work with Matter.
Since Matter is built on top of Wi-Fi and Thread, it's possible that some of the products you already own will receive firmware updates later this year to add Matter support. That being said, the transition details aren't super clear right now and ultimately the manufacturers and product specs themselves will dictate compatibility.
The cynic in me expects that some brands will want to withhold or delay Matter support for old devices in order to prompt new purchases. While your existing devices will continue working with whatever smart home system you connected them to, we risk a bifurcated system if every brand goes all-in on Matter for new products.
Why Matter might not matter
Though the major players and biggest brands are involved in the development of Matter, none are obligated to adopt the Matter spec whole hog which could end up causing as many headaches as Matter solves.
The first version of the Matter spec includes lighting, plugs, door locks, home security sensors, garage door openers, thermostats and HVAC controllers, blinds and shades, televisions and streaming devices, as well as Wi-Fi access points and bridges.
The first problem with that list is that it doesn't include everything. Notably absent are security cameras, a very popular smart home purchase, as well as other niceties like smart vacuum cleaners and home appliances. More will be added to the Matter spec over time, but it's already clear it's going to be a while before you can purely hunt down the Matter label on the box of any smart device.
A more serious problem, perhaps, is that each category within the Matter spec is optional so just seeing the Matter logo on the box doesn't necessarily guarantee you the same experience on every platform. Apple might not support Matter's TV features, for example, as it prioritizes its own Apple TV and AirPlay technologies. We'll have to see how these things shake out over time, but it's not as simple as it appears on the surface.
Nest founder Tony Fadell was skeptical about proprietary moves from companies that might damage the overall promise of Matter in a recent interview:
Indeed, Matter is not a smart home platform in and of itself like HomeKit is, rather a connectivity standard. You'll still need to interface with an app like the Home app or the Alexa app to set up automations and routines. It's unlikely that these will run across platforms so, ultimately, you're still siloed into one ecosystem or the other for a lot of important functions.
An easier smart home
It seems clear that Matter ought to make the process of setting up a smart home for the first time much easier. Look for the Matter logo on the box of the smart speaker and the smart accessories you buy and you know they will all work together. It's also easier for manufacturers of smart home products who, in theory, get access to the main three smart home platforms while only spending the development time for one standard.
For those already deep into a particular smart home platform, it's perhaps less beneficial though it will at least broaden the number of devices you have access to. For HomeKit users specifically, Matter opens the door to a lot more devices that are otherwise locked to just Alexa and Google Assistant. We should hopefully get our hands on some Matter-enabled devices this summer so we can find out for ourselves if this new standard really does matter.
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Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.