Smart homes: one standard to rule them all?

Science fiction has always presented us with a picture of a home where all devices and appliances work smoothly together, commanded by the homeowner’s voice. Now that we live in the future, what’s the reality of smart homes in 2022? How interoperable are they? Orange Silicon Valley (OSV) recently hosted a webinar in which leading industry figures discussed the state of play.

The smart home is supposed to be a place of seamless user experience, where all devices are interconnected and interoperable and give homeowners a smooth, enjoyable domestic environment. That’s not been the reality until now, though: different devices from different manufacturers using different systems have made the smart home experience fragmented. However, a new standard is emerging that could change the game and make smart homes commonplace.

It’s unrealistic to expect homeowners to open a specific app for every home device or appliance. And consumers will always buy devices from different manufacturers. An interoperable way forward is needed, which might come in the form of Matter, a single IP-based standard developed by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (formerly the Zigbee Alliance). Matter launched in 2019 as Project CHIP (Connected Home over IP) and offers one protocol that can connect compatible devices and systems.

Because Matter emerged from the Zigbee Alliance, it offers something different from the standards that have come before. Companies already on board with Matter include the leading smart home platforms Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, Google Home and Samsung SmartThings. Buy-in from these platforms is interesting, given that Matter is an open-source initiative. It’s hoped that Matter will unleash the full power of the smart home market and overcome consumer and device manufacturing issues.

What other barriers are in play?

Smart home adoption has stalled somewhat. In the U.S., where almost every home has connectivity, only 23% of households have three or more smart devices, so they don’t really qualify as smart homes. Why is this?

According to Makarand Joshi, Global Director for Strategy, Innovation and Standards at Schneider Electric, talking to Orange Silicon Valley, uptake has been slowed by security issues, complexity and interoperability issues, connectivity and simply cost.

Security is a significant concern because so many devices working on different protocols present a fragmented attack surface. Connectivity must be fast and reliable. Smart devices are not cheap, so cost is a factor.

Complexity and interoperability are perhaps the biggest stumbling blocks to adoption. As Makarand Joshi told the OSV webinar, “Consumers go to the store and retailers have all these smart devices, but not really any information about what will work with what. So, you maybe need to pay a consulting fee for an expert to come and set your home and devices up.”

Thirty-six percent of U.S. consumers who set up smart home devices themselves say they experience difficulty, and 44% of people said they had difficulty getting a smart home device to interact with other devices. “If the smart home is really to take off, then the space has to evolve significantly, and those smart devices, apps and cloud services all have to work together to support all these different functions,” said Makarand Joshi.

Matter helps overcome these challenges by being an open wireless connectivity protocol standard that creates a local network for direct device-to-device communications. This makes devices more responsive and reliable than if they need to communicate via the cloud. The Matter protocol also features robust certification that ensures interoperability and compatibility between devices that use the Matter specification. From the manufacturer’s perspective, moving forward developers can use the Matter software development kit (SDK), royalty-free, to build devices into the Matter ecosystem. This standardized approach can help drive consistency across specific parts of an application, such as security.

The first version of Matter covers some smart home devices, including light bulbs and switches, smart plugs, locks, blinds and shades, garage door controllers, thermostats and HVAC controllers. The next specification is expected to incorporate security cameras, doorbells, robot vacuums, smart speakers and other devices.

The connectivity challenge

Furthermore, Matter also works hand-in-hand with Thread, the new low-power mesh networking protocol designed to connect all devices in a smart home simply and seamlessly. What’s the difference between the two? Well, Matter is an application layer that runs on Thread. Also, Matter supports both Wi-Fi and Thread for connecting smart home devices, while Thread provides a reliable mesh capability so that there is no single point of failure. Thread is a mesh infrastructure that connects every product so it works better than Wi-Fi in areas of the home where network coverage may be poor.

The likes of Apple, Amazon and Google are already on board with Thread. One of the main reasons seems to be that unlike previous smart device connectivity protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave, Thread enables the connecting together of all a home’s smart devices in a giant mesh and doesn’t require a smart home hub to do so. It just needs a Thread border router. That Thread router connects devices to other IP-based networks, such as Wi-Fi or Ethernet. The Apple HomePod Mini already contains a Thread border router, as does the latest-gen Apple TV 4K.

Many people ask why the various smart home environments offered by Apple, Google, Amazon and Samsung don’t work together. The answer seems to be as simple as they each want to own the smart home. As Makarand Joshi told the OSV webinar, “The idea is that we can unify all these smart devices and ecosystems onto one protocol, which is Matter. I think this is now going to set the standard for many of these ecosystems and devices.”

Is this a smart home silver bullet?

Time will tell, but Matter does look like a big step forward. It could become the horse that leads the cart by forcing smart device and appliance manufacturers to comply with the Matter standard to ensure they work with voice services like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant. Consumer demand for a universal platform that gives them the smart home experience they expect could inform manufacturer actions and force all device and appliance makers to tow the Matter line. There are currently over 170 companies signed up to Matter, including the likes of Comcast, IKEA and Huawei. With the global smart home device market expected to top $165 billion by 2025, a unifying protocol that enhances homeowner experience might turn out to be the silver bullet.

To hear what industry experts had to say to Orange Silicon Valley about smart home adoption, Matter, and more, watch the webinar.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.