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USAToday Column

February 28, 2022
Syncing Alexa, Google Nest and Apple smart home tech is about to get easier with Matter

By Bob O'Donnell

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you have at least one smart home device in your household. After all, according to several studies on the topic, nearly half of U.S. households currently have at least one. From smart speakers and connected thermostats to light bulbs and video cameras, these gadgets have quickly moved from cutting edge to mainstream.

If you have multiple smart devices in your home, you’ve likely discovered what’s keeping much of the remaining half of U.S. households from buying their first one. It’s hard to make them work together. Instead of realizing the dream of a seamless Internet of Things (IoT), you’ve probably ended up with my favorite take on that acronym: Isolated Islands of Technology.

Part of the problem is that there are multiple large companies vying to maintain control over smart homes due to the large business opportunity and influence that this category of products is expected to have over the coming years. While competition has clearly been a great thing for driving important innovations in the tech world overall, when it comes to getting devices optimized for different ecosystems to work together, well, things can get tough. In other words, getting Amazon Alexa-focused devices to work with Google-powered Nest devices through an Apple-created app on your iPhone is often way more trouble than it’s worth.

Thankfully, big (and small) players in the smart home market recognized this challenge a few years back and started working on a single smart home standard that’s expected to solve these kinds of interoperability issues. Now called Matter (a vast improvement over the original Project Connected Home over IP, or CHIP, standard) and expected to be finalized and released this year, this smart home connectivity standard is being supported by big ecosystem vendors including Amazon, Apple and Google, as well as device companies ranging from Dyson and GE Lighting to Samsung and Sonos.

Matter is designed to make it easy to mix and match devices from different vendors and have them all be controlled and/or coordinated by applications that can run across a range of devices. In other words, with Matter-compatible devices and software, everything should just work. Plus, many of the capabilities of the Matter protocol are designed to work without requiring an internet connection.

While it certainly made sense to leverage the cloud-computing capabilities of early connected smart home devices, potential privacy and security concerns have become significantly more important issues since they were first introduced. Today, many homeowners would prefer that information about the activities or devices they use in their homes are not shared across the internet, and Matter will enable that capability as well.

Under the hood, the Matter protocol will be powered by chips from companies like Silicon Labs, which helped created the Zigbee standard, as well as NXP, Texas Instruments and ST Micro. The new protocol will use WiFi and the Google-created low-power wireless communications technology called Thread to communicate with devices. Bluetooth Low Energy will be used to discover devices that can be added to a home’s network of smart devices.

As a user, you’ll never need to worry about these technical details, but it is interesting to see how many technologies and companies Matter is pulling together to create this industry-wide standard.

Later this year, you’ll start to see the Matter logo on devices and applications that support the standard, and that will be your easy clue that they should all work together. The obvious question is what about existing smart home devices that you might already own? Here, the answer is mixed.

Thankfully, vendors like Amazon have said it plans to offer firmware updates (that is, software that runs inside hardware devices) to many of its existing products, like Echo smart speakers, to make them Matter-compatible. The trick is, even for vendors that are supporting Matter, not all devices are going to be upgradeable, so you’ll have to do a bit of homework to see if the models and/or versions you have can be upgraded. 

Even if you discover that you have some devices that aren’t able to be upgraded for Matter support, you still may be able to get them to work in a Matter-based smart home network. Some companies are planning to offer gateway, or “bridge”, devices that will be able to essentially translate messages from the Matter format into something the older device can understand.

This is particularly important for smart homes, because many of these devices are more appliance-like – meaning they are essentially built into homes – making the process of replacing them significantly more involved than just upgrading your smartphone or PC to the latest model. Again, realistically, this is going to take some homework on your part to determine if you can find the right gateway/bridge device for the smart home gadgets you already own – or, at the very least, the ones you really don’t want to have to replace.

The promise of smart home technology has always been an appealing one, and even many of the early efforts have dramatically changed how some people do certain activities or interact with their homes. At the same time, the smart home market has never achieved the level of success that many initially predicted it would because of the frustrations involved in trying to get multiple devices to work together.

Thankfully, given all the industry efforts and the range of participants behind the Matter standard, it looks like some of the promise of a Jetsons-like smart home could now really come to life.

Here’s a link to the original column:

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.