Compatibility Matters: New cooperative protocol gets smart devices to work together

By Chuck Ross | Apr 15, 2024
Compatibility Matters
According to YouGov’s 2024 U.S. Trend Report on smart home adoption, 65% of Americans now own at least one smart home appliance or device, up from 51% in 2020, with security devices and voice-controlled speakers leading the pack. The survey found those who already own one connected product are more likely than others to add to their collection.

According to YouGov’s 2024 U.S. Trend Report on smart home adoption, 65% of Americans now own at least one smart home appliance or device, up from 51% in 2020, with security devices and voice-controlled speakers leading the pack. The survey found those who already own one connected product are more likely than others to add to their collection. But those in the industry say there’s still plenty of room to grow.

“Recent market research suggests that the typical user is no longer the power user with many devices, but that increasingly broader groups of buyers are being reached,” said Jerome Gackel, CEO of Eve Systems, a German manufacturer of smart-home products, including plugs and window shades. He added that the industry still faces some marketing hurdles. “It is undisputed that a majority still finds smart-home products too expensive and does not expect much added value from them.”

‘Walled garden’

Carmen Pastore, consumer marketing manager for GE Lighting, East Cleveland, Ohio, said communication between devices also can become a hurdle as consumers decide to expand from a smart speaker to door locks, lighting and other options. 

“One of the pain points is needing multiple apps to control their different devices. [People] really don’t have a smart home, they have a bunch of smart devices controlled individually by apps,” he said. “We’ve heard from consumers that they want it all to be together in one place.”

The challenge for manufacturers is that, until now, they’ve had to either optimize their products for all the four major smart home platforms—Apple Home, Google Android, Amazon or Samsung’s SmartThings—or pick a limited subset, which cuts back on potential profitability. This creates a “walled garden” effect, where consumers’ future purchases can be restricted to products that work within the same network established by what they’ve already installed. While this could mean short-term profits for individual platforms, it also could slow the overall market by limiting the flow of new products onto store shelves.

Why Matter matters

This is just the problem a new protocol called “Matter” is meant to address. Managed by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), formerly the Zigbee Alliance, Matter was developed as a cooperative effort by the four leading platforms, which have recognized the ways their proprietary designs are holding back potential growth.

Opening up the market to new players with this nonproprietary protocol could help address consumer costs and communications concerns, said Chris LaPre, CSA’s head of technology. 

“You pull a $1.25 switch off the wall, and you want to put in a smart switch, and that’s $35—that’s not mass-market,” he said, noting today’s vast pricing difference between analog and digital home-control devices. “Now, maybe I paid an electrical contractor to put 10 of these switches in place and it doesn’t work. Matter has been built to solve that.”

The effort required addressing the ways each platform’s products communicate with each other, a critical element in getting a door lock to turn on the living room lights when it’s opened or a sensor to activate the thermostat when a room is occupied, even if the products come from different companies.

“Matter establishes a common protocol among smart devices, regardless of the manufacturer or type of device,” Gackel said. “This means devices from different brands can ‘speak’ the same language. And it is designed to work across different networking technologies—this allows for greater flexibility, enabling devices to communicate reliably regardless of the network they’re on.”

Cybersecurity considerations

It also meant establishing adequate cybersecurity throughout a home. This is a key consideration for the major platforms, which have each established their own security protocols and now must trust that opening up their systems to outside manufacturers won’t put their operations at risk.

“Matter provides all the framework for that,” LaPre said, noting that the group’s security work group also engaged with government cybersecurity experts from the United States and Singapore to devise the new networking approach. “Security is really high—we try to solve that for all manufacturers.”

Tim Harren-Lewis, lead systems engineer at GE Lighting, explains why security for the platforms at the top of the Matter food chain is so important. 

“If you’re looking at a Google or an Alexa, and you want to say something works on Alexa, you need to get to scale very quickly,” he said. “They have thousands of partners, and whoever is the weakest link in that security chain can cause vulnerabilities across the system. So, having the engineers at all the different platforms working together to say, ‘Yes, this is what security in this situation means’ is very advantageous.”

Matter began in 2019, through a working group founded by Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung SmartThings and the Zigbee Alliance called “Connected Home over IP,” or CHIP. It was initially released in October 2022, supporting a limited set of devices including door locks, thermostats and home security sensors. Version 1.2 of the protocol, released October 2023, expanded the types of devices it can serve. Today’s consumers can identify Matter products by the logo, which looks like three arrows pointing to a common center.

Matter expands to Thread

A second protocol called “Thread,” initially developed in 2015, is helping to support Matter’s expansion. While Matter addresses communication between devices, Thread provides a low-power network to help speed and extend those digital interactions. That makes it similar to other networking standards such as Zigbee and Z-Wave, with one important exception: it doesn’t need a central hub or bridge for directing messages. 

Instead, devices consumers might already have—through Apple TV 4K, Google Nest Hub Max and Amazon Echo—routing capabilities built in that can connect the local network to the internet for access to cloud-based services, which enable devices to be controlled from outside the home.

Thread’s sweet spot is supporting short bursts of communication from one device to another, such as from a sensor to a room’s lighting system. It has limits—for example, it can’t support high-bandwidth devices such as security cameras. However, because most home networking needs fall below the standard’s bandwidth threshold, its label is showing up on many manufacturers’ products. 

One single network

Initially, platforms had proprietary versions of Thread, but an update in 2022 broke down those barriers. So with the addition of Matter, consumers with a combination of Apple and Android devices, for example, often can see them all within a single network app, rather than having to switch between Apple Home and Google Home.

“Thread is what all our manufacturers want to use for battery-operated devices,” LaPre said, noting that with Wi-Fi, routers can wear out batteries quickly through unnecessary status checks of connected devices. “Thread allows you to control that.”

The benefit for ECs

For ECs, communicating the advantages Matter and Thread offer can help create a sense of expertise and trust among potential customers who want to install smart home devices, but aren’t sure what to look for. It also could help expand an electrical business into integration work, since wired smart devices install just like their not-so-smart counterparts, without need for communications cabling.

“Most of this stuff installs just like traditional hardware, whether it’s switches or thermostats,” Pastore said, describing GE Lighting’s strategy for designing networked controls. “The way we approach it, with our undercabinet fixtures or our wafer lights, is that the electrician is going to hardwire it in, and they’re going to get it to the point where it’s powered—and you can flip it on with a traditional switch, and the homeowner would be the one doing the smart home commissioning. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that the electrician is doing the setup and they’re the IT support. It’s on us, from a manufacturer standpoint, to make sure the consumer can get those devices set up the way they want them.”

Moving forward, current plans for further Matter development are focused on expanding the types of devices capable of earning certification to the protocol’s specification.

“We expect energy management to be one of the most influential topics in the further development of Matter in the coming years,” Gackel said, noting the ability this standard offers to add new control capabilities without having to open walls and run new wire. “The majority of today’s buildings will still be in use in 25 years’ time, so smart technology retrofitting will be crucial.”

Harren-Lewis also sees room for incremental improvements to the work Matter’s developers already have done. For example, he said, existing lighting specifications have addressed most consumer use cases for controlling on/off, dimming and color-­shifting, but more dynamic features—such as making lights interact with music—might be better handled by a manufacturers’ app.

Pastore sees the development of the Wi-Fi standard as a possible model for how Matter might develop in the longer term as a familiar technology that works in the background, just doing what it’s supposed to do.

“I think that’s the expectation with smart homes and Matter,” he said, “that it becomes the kind of backbone and connecting point that Wi-Fi has been for so many devices in the home.”


Connectivity Standards Alliance / / Maksym Yemelyanov / Gstudio

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].






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