Earlier this week, Amazon, Google, Apple and many other tech companies announced their participation in the Connectivity Standards Alliance, or CSA (a rebrand of the decades-old Zigbee Alliance). The coalition’s mission is to deliver open standards for the smart home and Internet of Things (IoT) categories. The newly formed CSA also announced Matter, a rebranding of the existing Connected Home over IP (CHIP) initiative. Matter’s goal is to create a credible seal of approval for products, to assure customers they were built on the CSA standard to be intrinsically reliable, secure by design and broadly compatible at scale.
The new open standards initiative is vital to the future of the smart home. If successful, it will let smart devices, such as door locks, thermostats and lightbulbs, work in a cross-platform manner, regardless of whether it was designed for the Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple HomeKit ecosystems.
The overall connected home category has been on a tear over the past several years. This has been especially true during the pandemic as many stay-at-home consumers have embarked on making their homes “smart.” However, marketplace enthusiasm for the smart home has dampened after numerous media reports underscored consumers’ frustration with set up, operation and interoperability challenges. At its very core, the Matter initiative is designed to combat this. I’d like to use this column to discuss the business and consumer aspects of the Matter announcement. Bill Curtis, my Moor Insights & Strategy colleague, will be following up later this week with his thoughts on the technical aspects of the Matter announcement and its applicability for commercial and industrial applications.
Matter’s roots in the Zigbee Alliance increase its potential for success
While the Zigbee Alliance’s new Connectivity Standards Alliance name might conjure up “artist that was formerly known as Prince” jokes, the decision to rebrand is actually a wise one. Most mainstream consumers are unaware of the Zigbee Alliance. Zigbee’s original charter, established back in 2002, was to provide a low-speed (but energy efficient) networking technology protocol for smart home devices such as alarm sensors and smart lightbulbs. By rebranding itself as the Connectivity Standards Alliance, the group is, in essence, stating to the world that it must move beyond Zigbee (though CSA will continue to develop Zigbee technology and retain the Zigbee technology brand).
Executives with the CSA envision a future where the Matter logo is as pervasive as the WiFi logo is today on connected devices. The alliance desires to create a “Good Housekeeping”-like approval seal that gives consumers confidence a smart home device will work across disparate technology brands, complex networks and ecosystems. It’s unquestionably a worthy goal, and for reasons that I will go into in a few moments, not a slam dunk.
The challenges of the connected home are formidable
As many consumers who have embarked on creating a smart home can attest, getting multiple devices to work agreeably with each other is not for the faint of heart. Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant solutions can often work in a competitive (and frustrating) manner to be your preferred interface.
On the other hand, Matter is designed to unite the network domain, allowing devices to operate with any of those three voice-enabled control systems. The promise is that it should even work (and you probably do) with more than just a single voice control system. Matter, the new name for the Connected Home over Internal Protocol (CHIP) initiative that was announced in 2019, exploits the internet’s core technologies to manage the intricacies of seamlessly connecting smart home devices. As of now, the technology permits users to manage heating, home theaters, video doorbells and alarms.
Alliances—challenging to maintain over time
No one can seriously dispute that the smart home space needs standards to grow and prosper. There are thousands of smart home devices on the market that address broad usage models (e.g., heating, security, home automation, etc.) and perceived “specialty” problems (e.g., controlling a bird feeder). Consumers love the potential of automating their homes in a clever, intelligent manner. Consumer enthusiasm significantly wanes when they’re confronted with the inevitable interoperability problems which arise from the fact that no single smart home platform can offer every possible solution a consumer might need.
So, in that sense, the smart home space needs Matter to succeed. But the headwinds that standards like Matter face are not trivial. While the alliance boasts a who’s who of big players in the connected home space, the core participants have big personalities. While the Matter announcement early this week showed no signs of misalignment among the major parties, you’d expect that as alliances like Matter are often kicked off with excitement and goodwill. The concern is that the Matter “plumbing” standard gets diluted if participants believe it’s weakening its company’s value proposition. This scenario has happened before (recall Weave). It would be a shame if Matter gets relegated into the dustbin of failed alliances due to participant infighting.
But, hope springs eternal and there is cause for general optimism about Matter’s success. The major players appear to have a sincere, genuine desire to solve the interoperability challenges that permeate the smart home. In addition, it should be noted that the Matter “allies” have been developing Matter technology as a royalty-free, open-source project (which has already been ratified by the alliance participants). This aspect is a promising and critical step in permitting device makers to focus on certification, making the lives of developers easier to embrace Matter support. Time will tell, of course, but I believe my optimism is justified.