16 May 2021
If you’ve looked at the different technologies around smart home the variety of products could start to hurt your brain. Not that the products aren’t good (well, some aren’t), it’s more about the lack of standards and the proliferation of development. It’s a bit of the “Wild West” out there I’ve found as I’m evaluating different solutions for our smart home. If you’re out shopping for smart home products, you have a seemingly endless sea of choices to pick through. Even if you’ve already settled on just buying smart bulbs, you still have to make more decisions and ask more questions.
Should you get a wifi, Z-Wave, or ZigBee bulb? What about Bluetooth bulbs? Is a hub required to control them? Do you want voice control? If so, would you prefer Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple Siri? And what about other competing standards? Are you missing out if you don’t invest in those?
Each standard has varying benefits and downsides. Wifi smart devices are fast communicating, low latency devices that yield quick response times. But they’re also power-hungry and so inappropriate for small coin-cell battery-powered devices like sensors. Thread, on the other hand, is efficient and low-powered, but slower than wifi. That’s perfect for small sensors, but maybe not the best choice for a smart display.
Unfortunately, those standards won’t work together either — even when they seem similar. ZigBee and Wifi devices both communicate over the 2.4GHz spectrum, but they can’t work with each other directly.
Most smart gadgets support just one wireless standard, say ZigBee or wifi, but not both. Others go for a kitchen sink route — a smart bulb might support Bluetooth and Zigbee and Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. The kitchen sink route might seem beneficial to you, but it also comes with drawbacks.
Manufacturers need to spend extra time and effort to incorporate additional standards. Sometimes that even means adding extra hardware as well. All of that leads to an increased cost for development, which the companies pass on to you.
Each new standard also comes with its vulnerabilities and defects. It’s theoretically easy to patch one set of weaknesses, but the difficulty goes up with each additional incorporated standard. That may leave you with unpatched problems if a manufacturer decides it’s too difficult or expensive to update your smart gadget.
The Matter (formerly Project CHIP) working group wants to solve this problem by relying on an existing and tested standard: Internet Protocol (IP). Matter’s goal isn’t to replace wifi or ZigBee, but to bring the best of all the protocols together under one shared umbrella.
Right now, if a manufacturer wants to create a networking device, like a Wifi router, or ethernet card, they rely on Internet Protocol (IP) as a unifying standard to tie everything together. IP has been around for ages, and manufacturers understand its benefits and security needs. That’s a benefit to you because that drives down the hardware costs and increases security. That’s why Matter wants to rely on IP for its unifying standard. If Matter can create and encourage adoption of this new standard, then devices built with ZigBee or Wifi or Bluetooth radios could, in theory, adopt the same unifying standard. Manufacturers, in turn, would need fewer resources to create smart home products and to maintain them.
If all devices use the same IP standard, you won’t need to worry about Wifi, ZigBee, or Bluetooth. On the consumer level, the strategy of Matter is that you’ll be able to buy smart home devices, and they’ll “just work” with whatever you use, whether that’s Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri or another assistant or interface.
Matter has two goals. First, it wants to make manufacturing secure and cross-compatible smart devices easier. Second, it wants to make smart devices more accessible to consumers. That means most of the work will be in the background. Just like you don’t pay attention to how your car engine works, or how your wifi network works, you won’t pay attention to how your smart lock communicates with your smart lights.
Since all that work is in the background, your interface won’t change. If you use Google Home or Amazon Alexa to control your smart devices, you’ll continue as you always have with no real noticeable difference in the experience. Matter promises that the creation of this standard won’t break your current devices, even as you start to acquire new smart home gadgets that are Matter-enabled. That should help reduce adoption pains.
As of yet, no single smart home device supports the standard. And for that matter, the certification process to make a product work with Matter’s standards isn’t even finalized. For now, Matter isn’t helping any smart home user.
But it has a good chance of finally solving some big smart home problems in the future. Right now, if you want to buy a smart home sensor from one company to control a smart light from another company, you have to do a lot of homework to ensure they work together. And that giant game of, “well it depends on a bunch of factors” makes pairing up smart home devices from different manufacturers a nightmare for consumers. Matter promises it can solve all of that. And to help that claim, it has backing from the Connectivity Standards Alliance (formerly the Zigbee Alliance), Google, Amazon, Appleand other big players in the smart home sector.
Device manufacturers are also on board; Nanoleaf, Apple (again with Apple TV 4K) and Google (with its new Nest hub) already promised full support. And now, just after the rebrand announcement, Signify (makers of Philips Hue Bulbs and Wiz bulbs) says it will also join in and fully convert to support the new standard. Matter will work with wifi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, ZigBee, and Thread, unifying all those standards and bringing the strengths of each into one whole. The standard already promised to support Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Siri at launch.
Eventually, if Matter is able to pull off standardization, all you’ll have to do is look for the Matter certification mark on a product’s packaging, and it will work with all the other Matter certified devices. And according to the Connectivity Standards Alliance, the spec is nearing completion, and companies should be able to submit smart home devices for certification later this year. The hope is to have the devices ready in time for the holiday shopping season. I’m keeping my fingers crossed about this for an opportunity to save a little money on the technology I’m going to buy anyway.
This is good news for our smart home build. As we won’t break ground until this summer or possibly later due to the inflated price of wood, this means I can design our smart home around the Matter standard. From a timing perspective it’s ideal as I will hold off buying as much of our technology as late before our move-in as possible. This ensures the latest tech and conserves warranty. It’ll also simplify interactivity planning and make the entire deployment “future flexible.”
As for our lumber price challenges, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. I just read that lumber prices have fallen for a 5th straight day amidst other surging commodity prices. This is encouraging as we finalize our floor plan and start to work on our home elevation (the exterior look). I’ve engaged a local contractor to move forward with site prep. The lot isn’t level and there’s a significant amount of dirt to move to get it flat. This is exciting to us as it’ll prepare the lot for the foundation work though it does bother Debbie about displacing the Prairie Dogs — see my post from August 2020 for more details on the critters inhabiting our property. Once the floor plans are complete I’ll be laying over network, electrical and audio planning so I’m excited about getting started on those.
I realize this post was a bit of a deep dive on smart home standardization so let me know if you have questions or comments. Also let us know if there’s anything else you’re curious about regarding our project. We’ve enjoyed your interest in our project along with the insightful comments and thought-provoking questions. Until next week …
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