I spent a week in Amsterdam hearing from the biggest players in the smart home field. All of them tried to sell me on Matter, the new protocol poised to unify smart home technology and fix all the problems we’ve come to hate. And I’m sorry to say, I left bitterly disappointed.
For years I’ve lived in a smart home world, filling my house with literally hundreds of gadgets all designed to give me “the future.” But the longer you live in a smart home, the more you see what a convoluted, duct-taped, and bandaged ball of half-working solutions it is. Matter (formerly Project Chip) was supposed to fix it, primarily by ending the silos and bringing around universal compatibility. And it probably could have before the delays—until the companies got involved.
A Great Promise for Smart Homes
If you’ve tried to build a smart home, you’re probably aware of the problems. But if you haven’t gone down that road, you may want to thank yourself. When smart homes work, it’s an amazing experience. But just as often, it can be a bit of a miserable experience. Currently, the world of DIY smart homes is a patchwork experience. The smart doorbell you want might be from one company, the smart bulbs you want from another, the smart light switches from a third, and the smart speakers from a fourth. The list only grows.
And that can lead to several problems, the first being hubs. Though more and more device manufacturers treat Wi-Fi as a “pseudo standard,” it’s still not uncommon for devices to use a hub. If you prefer Lutron light switches, you’ll need that company’s bubs. When you decide to pick up Philips Hue Light Bulbs, you’ll need a second hub. And if you decide to go with Ikea smart blinds, well you guessed it, that’s a third hub. And we haven’t even discussed general-purpose hubs, like SmartThings.
In the early days, Matter promised to do away with traditional ethernet hubs. Instead, devices you might own anyway (like a smart speaker) would serve as a Matter border router and send the signal where needed. As long as you have at least one border router device in your home, and you may already own one that can serve that function, then you have everything you need to connect up Matter-compatible devices in your home. It wouldn’t even need the cloud.
And that’s good because the cloud is also another problem with smart homes. Many hubs and smart devices aren’t all that smart. Instead, they rely on a cloud created by the manufacturer for the real brains behind the operation. Just like your smart speaker reaches out to Google or Amazon to understand your speech, many smart bulbs, switches, and other devices reach out to the cloud to send and receive commands. But if the company goes belly up, like Iris, Insteon (though it came back), Wink (though it keeps rising from the dead), and Lighthouse, then your smart home breaks. Matter’s local control prevents that outcome.
And finally, Matter promised solutions for the app problem. Every time you buy a new smart home gadget from a new smart home manufacturer, you’ll need a new app to set it up and control it. After that, you may be able to control it from the Alexa or Google Home app, though you may miss out on some functionality. Many smart locks don’t work at all in Google Home, for instance. And every app calls for a different setup process, so you have to relearn how to add devices to your home.
Matter promised potential solutions to avoid all that. First, a simple universal setup process so you wouldn’t have to relearn how to add new devices to your smart home over and over. And second, multi-admin control. Multi-admin control might be the most exciting promise from Matter. With that feature, you could open a single app from any manufacturer and control all your devices in one place, even if they come from other manufacturers.
Right now if you want to control Eve bulbs, you’ll need the Eve app (solely on iPhone), then you’ll need to switch to the Philips Hue app to control those bulbs, and the WiZ app to control those bulbs. The irony to that last part is that WiZ and Philips Hue are owned by the same parent company—yet you still need separate apps. But Matter promised that if you preferred one particular app, you’d be able to control all your devices from it and ignore the rest.
Matter Is Fragmented Into Silos
So what’s the problem? Well, Matter didn’t fully follow through with all of its promises.
Hubs Will Stick Around
The one initial promise it backtracked on is hubs. Matter 1.0 supports ethernet hubs, which means the Philips Hue hub, SmartThings hubs, and Aqara hub continues to be a thing. There are some advantages there—as Philips Hue hubs gain Matter support, so do all of its bulbs, strips, and other products. But you’ll still find yourself plugging in multiple hubs and trying to find space for them all.
I sat in on a Question and Answer session at the Matter launch in Amsterdam, and a representative from Philips Hue made it clear that the company had no intention of giving up its hub. The company claims that the hub is a necessary requirement for the best experience, though the examples offered (you can group your smart bulbs) are certainly possible without one. In any case, it’s clear that hubs are here to stay.
The Cloud Will Still Invade Your Home
And Matter really does offer local control—until it doesn’t. Think about it for a second. To get a local Matter network going, the first step is to add a device that serves as a Corder control router to your home. The nicety here is, it will probably be a device you’d buy anyway, so at least it serves double duty unlike traditional hubs.
If you’re wondering which devices will serve as Matter border routers, you can usually look to anything that currently can serve as a Thread Border routers The technology is the same—albeit with some potential additional hardware requirements, and many Thread Border Routers can serve as Border Routers for Matter.
What Thread Borders are currently on the market? If you own an Apple TV 4K (Second Generation), Apple HomePod Mini, Amazon Echo Smart Speakers (Fourth Generation) Amazon eero Mesh routers (eero Beacon, eero 6, eero Pro, and eero Pro 6) Nanoleaf Elements, Shapes, and Lines Light Panels, or Nest Hub Max, Nest Hub (Second Generation), and Nest Wi-Fi Routers, you already own a Thread Border Router.
But hold your horses, don’t rush out to buy those just yet. Just because a device can already act as a Thread Border Router, doesn’t mean it will work for Matter or get upgraded. Nanoleaf, for instance, says it may not upgrade Elements, Shapes, and Lines products to Matter. Representatives from the company wouldn’t even commit to releasing Matter-compatible Border Routers in the future when I asked.
But look at that Thread Border Router list again, and you’ll find something in common. Nearly all of them are Cloud-based devices. Whether it’s an Alexa or Google speaker, or even an eero or Nanoleaf (which won’t work anyway), you’re bringing the Cloud into your Matter smart home. The main exception above is Apple’s products, which do skip the Cloud. If your whole family isn’t on iPhone, you’re out of luck though if you want to avoid the Cloud.
Multi-Admin Control Is a Fragmented Mess
One of the most exciting promises to come out of Matter is Multi-Admin control. I’ve long advocated controlling your whole smart home from one app, but that’s easier said than done. The easiest way to do it currently is to commit to either Google or Alexa, and buy products compatible with them going forward. Then you can control your devices in the Google Home or Alexa app. But that has downsides, like a lack of good routines in Google Home. Or the ugly mess that Alexa’s app has become.
If you wanted to use a better app, the only option was to limit yourself to one device manufacturer and hope that would cover all your needs. Multi-admin control, in theory, lets you use your favorite to control all your devices, regardless of manufacturer. But there’s a catch: first, a device manufacturer has to allow its gadgets to be controlled by other apps. And it has to update its app to control devices from other manufacturers.
But Matter makes no requirements when it comes to Multi-Admin control. A manufacturer can choose to allow its devices to be controlled by other apps, or allow its app to control other devices. Or both. Or neither at all. So, what commitments do we have so far? I asked a few different manufacturers at the Matter Launch. Here’s what I found out:
Philips Hue: Philips Hue will not allow any form of multi-admin control at all. You’ll have to control Philips Hue (and only Philips Hue) devices in the Hue app.
Update: Since publishing this article, a Philips Hue PR rep reached out to clarify that Hue Devices will be open for control in other apps. Other devices can not be controlled in the Hue app. That’s a shame, as the Hue app is easily one of the best smart home apps available. But still an improvement over what we were originally told.
WiZ: WiZ, which shares the same parent company as Philips Hue, will also allow its devices to be controlled by other apps. But it won’t update its app to control other devices.
Nanoleaf: Nanoleaf will also allow its devices to be controlled by other apps, but it’s unclear if you’ll get to control other devices in the Nanoleaf app.
Aqara: Aqara will allow both control of its devices through other apps, and controlling other devices through its apps. However, you’ll need an updated hub, and the current one isn’t Thread capable. Aqara plans to release an updated multi-protocol hub later.
Eve: Eve is, simply put, the gold standard of Matter. The company will update its app to control other Matter devices and allow its existing devices to work in other Matter-compatible apps. Eve is far ahead of nearly every company, having long supported the Thread protocol.
I was at least pleased to find no manufacturer decided to control other devices but not allow control of its devices. But multi-admin control is far from universal, and I doubt Philips Hue will be the only company to avoid it altogether. The elephant in the room, or rather elephants, are Alexa and Google Home. Everything will work with those two, sheerly out of necessity. Most companies already work with the two most popular smart speaker companies, so nothing changes there.
But if you don’t like the Google Home or Alexa app, and looked forward to using just the Eve or Philips Hue app to control your entire smart home, then I’m sorry to say that won’t happen yet.
This Won’t Be Solved Anytime Soon
It’s early days for Matter, and that’s part of the problem. Eve, for instance, while embracing Matter on a much wider scale than other companies, doesn’t yet have an Android app. That’s coming, but it means a good portion of smart home users are out of luck. But iPhone users also need to wait, as Amazon is only releasing Matter to Wi-Fi products connected to its Android app for now. And forget Amazon Thread; that’s coming later.
Matter 1.0 doesn’t cover every type of smart home device yet, either. More updates are needed before cameras, energy monitors, and robot vacuums can join the Matter protocol. Which means that, at least for now, it’s unlikely your entire smart home will work with Matter. Especially due to the slow rollout. Companies are updating little by little, which is probably the safe option to pick.
But when it comes to things like Multi-Admin control and hubs, I doubt we’ll ever see the future Matter originally promised. The truth is, Matter lacks teeth and leaves it up to the manufacturers to decide what to do or support. Some will always hold out to maintain control. And that leaves us with a disingenuous commercial.
During the event, the Matter group showed a “commercial” of sorts that made the big promise for the protocol. Someday, the commercial claims, you won’t find smart bulbs in a special smart home section at your local store. Instead, they’ll be interspersed with the regular bulbs. Because with Matter, you know everything will just work. Just look for the Matter label on the box.
But that ignores vital facts. Google, Amazon, and Apple haven’t shown any sign of willingness to drop existing labels on the box. So you’ll probably see something with four labels, the “big three” plus Matter. And though the Matter logo promises “it will just work,” that’s only half true. You won’t know if it will “just work” with the app of your choice. Not until Multi-Admin control is a requirement (if it ever is).
So, unfortunately, while Matter promised the ultimate unifying standard that would finally fix the smart home, it has delivered yet another ball of duct tape and bandages masked as a solution. At least for now. Here’s hoping that changes.