Citing complexity, Matter smart home standard delayed again – Stacey on IoT

The standards group behind the Matter smart home interoperability protocol has delayed the release of the Matter specification by three months, extending its release until the fall of this year. In a blog post, the Connectivity Standards Alliance explains that because there are so many interested parties, testing between all of them has become more complicated, and the organization has decided to add another testing event.

The news means the delay of Matter-certified products until at least the fall, and likely longer, especially for companies that have not been building products toward the spec from the beginning. As a consumer and journalist who has been telling everyone I know to wait until this summer to plan their smart home device purchases, this news is a bummer.

The Matter logo on a smart bulb. Image courtesy of the Connectivity Standards Association.

The longer Matter takes to get out, the more expectations consumers have about its effect, the more confident I am that implementing Matter will become both essential, and less beneficial for device makers.

Delays in Matter have been commonplace since the beginning. It was announced in Dec. 2019 as Project CHIP and the companies involved promised a standard in a year. This was crazy ambitious, especially after the pandemic hit. And yet, with every delay the Connectivity Standards Alliance, which is the organization behind Matter (and was formerly the Zigbee Alliance), touted that it was pulling together an ambitious effort and it was still one of the fastest and most comprehensive standards efforts out there .

At the time this was true, but two and half years later, the messaging has shifted. No longer content to tout its rapid-fire standard-setting activity, the CSA started talking about how many companies were participating and how it was going to release a complete software development kit, not just a written spec. Now, the messaging is focused on how many companies have gotten involved (more than 450 at the moment) and how the addition of more chip and OS providers has complicated the testing process.

This messaging is consistent across all of my conversations with people involved in the standard, so I believe their rationale for the delay. But this is a problem of the CSA’s own making in many respects.

When Project CHIP launched it promised a way to make the smart home interoperable. In 2019 consumers were struggling to figure out which light bulbs they might buy that would work with their respective light switches or digital assistants. Some products worked with Alexa, Google, or Samsung, and others were HomeKit certified.

Consumer confusion led to people ditting their smart home setups and returning products. This is why Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung decided to launch something to make the smart home “interoperable.” The idea immediately caught fire and many device makers, tech media and others jumped on the bandwagon. I was one of them, and still have hopes that Matter will improve the smart home.

But the world has changed a lot since Dec. 2019.

Popular smart devices such as these cameras from Google are not part of the Matter specification. Image courtesy of Google.

The smart home is still a mess in 2022, but consumers kept buying connected devices and figuring out how to make them work. Climate change and the pandemic have changed the reason many people are investing in smart home products. Security and convenience are still important, but managing indoor air quality and helping remote parents age in place have also driven people to adopt smart home devices.

Big smart home players such as Google, Amazon, and Apple have continued to build out their ecosystems and add use cases for the smart home that go far beyond turning on a light with your voice.

These trends have helped make Matter less beneficial than it might have been two years ago. On one hand, I am awed by what people think Matter will do and am constantly reminding people that he won’t help them with the video cameras or video doorbells because a video interoperability standard is just too much, or that your appliances aren’t part of any Matter integration. On the other hand, I’m watching the big-name players that originally launched the standard, push their platforms far beyond turning on lights and into services tied to security, energy efficiency, and aging in place.

For consumers, Matter remains a holy grail that they hope will “fix” all of the difficulties they have with the smart home. But for the big smart home players, Matter is already in their rear-view mirror as they build services reliant on devices that aren’t even part of the Matter spec. This isn’t to say I think Matter is no longer important, but that any company betting on Matter as part of their business strategy needs to understand the role it’s likely to play.

Device makers have always faced a double-edged sword when it comes to Matter. For many stand-alone devices such as locks and light bulbs, Matter is an existential crisis, simply because it takes some of the smarts out of the hardware. Consumers who buy a Matter-certified lock will know it works with any Matter-certified digital assistant and other Matter-certified gear. So, for example, consumers no longer have to pick among the two or three locks that work with HomeKit, if they are an Apple user. They can instead choose from a bunch of Matter-certified locks. Device makers are reacting to this potential commodification with denial, weird additional features that require a consumer to download an app, and efforts to make specialized software features that set their products apart from the crowd.

I suspect most companies pursuing Matter are not fully aware of how quickly it could commoditize their business.

Schlage’s new Encode Plus lock support Apple’s HomeKey, which may have more relevance that eventual support for Matter. Image courtesy of Schlage.

And yes, even as CSA members work toward Matter, companies such as Apple are launching features such as HomeKey or HomeKit Secure Video, which create a new layer of services that require customer integrations that Matter was supposed to do away with. Another example might be Amazon’s Alexa Together service, which involves Echo devices and associated health products and sensors to help with aging in place. Matter doesn’t even support emerging device categories such as indoor air quality monitors or energy storage systems.

So even as we await the coming of the complete Matter standard in the fall, it feels like Matter will become the basic infrastructure underlying many smart home devices, but it’s also not going to deliver the smart home people are dreaming of today.

I’m still eager for the implementation, and can’t wait to get my questions about how it will work answered, but I’m also clear-eyed about how Matter ultimately fits into an intuitive smart home or a home with ambient intelligence. It will be essential, but it also will become commodity infrastructure, as opposed to a holy grail that will fix all problems.

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