AR/VR/MX took center stage at CES 2023. Automotive trends got a lot of love, as well, as did robotics and the metaverse. Heck, even pee-related gadgets had their moment to shine last week in Vegas. Another trend, however, was ever-present, if decidedly more understanded.
The last few years have been a roller coaster for the smart home. After years of hype, the cracks have begun to show for some of the major players in the space. The most prominent example of late is Amazon’s Echo division. While no doubt being set up as something of a loss leader, few expected a $5 billion a year revenue loss at this late stage.
In addition to the standard tech hype cycle, the smart home has also been cursed by a lack of interoperability. One of the technology’s most hopeful promises is an easy set up. Forget all of those expensive, time-consuming setups that require someone with contracting and electrical know-how — just plug it in, connect the app and you’re off to the races.
But in consumer electronics, the best laid plans and all that. It’s still a relatively young category, with several pain points, but at least one was seemingly easily avoided. If you’ve followed consumer tech with any frequency, you know one thing for sure: Competitors will rarely give an inch. It’s an approach that — in the past — has led to antitrust and other regulatory scrutiny. In recent years, this has manifested itself as app stores and walled gardens.
For the smart home, it’s meant a dearth of interoperability. If you’ve attempted to buy a smart home product, you’re almost certainly familiar with the limitations. Heck, there’s a decent chance you purchased a product and had to return it after finding out the hard way that it didn’t work with HomeKit, Alexa, Google Home, Samsung SmartThings or any manner of other ecosystems.
This is the promise of Matter. Announced at the tail end of 2019, the home automation standard is the purview of the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA). The group was founded by Amazon, Apple, Google, Comcast and the Zigbee Alliance. It operates similarly to organizations like the Bluetooth Special Interest Group and WiFi Alliance. The company list has expanded greatly, but each member gets the same single vote, from Apple, Amazon and Google on down to the smallest startup.
“Manufacturers all agree to send the same commands and all agree to do the same thing when they’ve received those commands,” Jon Harros, the CSA’s director of Certification and Testing Programs, told us in an interview at last week’s CES. “It wouldn’t matter whether the command came from one manufacturer or the other. If you’re receiving it, it will always work in the same way.”
The obvious question in all of this is: Why now? Or, more explicitly, why did this take so long? For starters, the obvious issue alluded to above that most of these big companies would really rather not work with their competitors if they can avoid it. As such, getting everyone on the same page about something like this is a bit of a cat herding scenario.
“Technically, there are a lot of different steps,” says Harros. “Number two, it was also we had to reach a level of maturity within the market and with those global players that everyone understood and recognized that having these walled gardens and having these fractured networks was actually limiting the AOT (automation of things), and that it was time to resolve that issue.”
Effectively, the big players recognized that there was less value in cutting out the competition by demanding manufacturers comply to a single ecosystem than there was in suddenly opening their own offering up to practically every third-party device manufacture by way of a group effort. It’s a remarkable bit of collaboration in an era of closed ecosystems and app stores.
“The IoT started reaching a point where it became obvious to have that reality of the billions of sensors and connected devices that we all know is possible,” says Harros. “They all have a major slice of the pie. They’re all doing very well, but the size of the pie could grow orders of magnitude. You’re now not talking about shipping millions of products, you’re talking about shipping billions.”
More than 2,000 engineers pulled from different member companies were put to work creating a software protocol that would offer cross platform functionality, and provide the sort of product security consumers demand from their smart products in 2023. The initial fruits of that work began rolling out toward the end of last year. Plenty more are still on the way.
“We’ve already had one train arrive at the station as Matter 1.0,” says Harros. “We wanted to make sure we launched on time, with all of the features and primary device types everyone wanted, straight out of the block. Before the train arrived, other trains set off behind it. There are members of the alliance that have been working on things like white goods [appliances], cameras and smart vacuums. They’re already on the way to the train station. They just haven’t arrived yet.”
One of the beauties about the implantation of a software layer is that many existing products will be backward compatible with the standard through an over the air update. Newer products, meanwhile, will carry the Matter logo, which the alliance is hoping will become as ubiquitous as the Bluetooth and WiFi logos. For older products, you’ll be able to check them against the CSA’s online database.
The organization is employing third-party laboratories to put devices through similar testing practices as the ones the FCC has in place.
“We absolutely believe that — in a very short matter of time — everyone will recognize the Matter logo,” says Harros, “so when a consumer goes to an electronics store or your local home hardware store, they’re just going to look for that logo. You know that if it has that logo, it will interoperate with something else.”