(Pocket-lint) - If you've ever wondered why certain smart home devices work with some but not other counterparts, you'll want to know about Matter - the latest wireless interoperability standard threatening to shake up the industry.
In the works since 2019, with companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung and the Zigbee Alliance at the heart, the artist formerly known as 'Project CHIP' has now been transformed into a shiny, formalised brand - Matter.
The aim of Matter is still the same, but everything is now set to become much more official. The big names behind the protocol will soon be throwing their products into the newly-unified state, and that inevitably has a knock-on effect for consumers.
And, as ever, the ever-changing inner workings of the smart home can be complicated to unpack.
That's why we've created this explainer, where we'll be answering exactly what Matter is, what companies are actually doing about it and why it all ... matters.
So, with that obligatory matter-related quip out of the way, let's jump in.
What is Matter, and what's the aim?
As we've already kind of alluded to, Matter is a new smart home interoperability protocol launched as a joint effort by a handful of the industry's biggest players. Over 170 companies are involved, with Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Google and the Zigbee Alliance being the most prominent names.
So, why did they do it - what's the point? Well, the smart home in its current form is a little messy.
Customers need to make sure dedicated hubs can link up with the right peripheral devices, and also make decisions over which devices work for their home based on which assistant and ecosystem they're already embedded in.
It's the equivalent of not being able to shift between a games console to play the same game, or being trapped into a music streaming platform because of your built-up library.
The smart home is a friendlier battlefield than those areas, though, which is why these companies have decided to make the whole system easier for both manufacturers and consumers.
The goal of Matter, then, is to be an interoperability protocol with standard data models that ensure smart home devices can work across different ecosystems. So, an Amazon Echo Show display should hypothetically be able to work as seamlessly with a Google Nest doorbell as it does with its own Ring offerings, for example.
What happens to Zigbee, Z-Wave and Thread?
If you've never realised it before, your existing smart home devices are all connected via the current dominating forces - Zigbee and Z-Wave. This pair, along with plenty of other, smaller radio protocols, as well as Bluetooth, won't just suddenly stop connecting your devices now that Matter is emerging.
However, given Zigbee Alliance's role in Matter's creation - and, by proxy, the Zigbee wireless standard - it's very likely it continues to develop alongside, create a pathway to Matter and perhaps even merge at some stage.
Z-Wave's future is more interesting to observe. And while it may not appear to be an active participant in Matter, it's still involved to some degree.
"It's incorrect to think that Z-Wave is sitting on the other side of [Matter], we're not," Mitch Klein, the Executive Director at Z-Wave Alliance and Director of Strategic Partnerships, Silicon Labs, recently told The Ambient.
"I'm not going to get into some of their challenges, because we all have them. But CHIP is focused on IP. Show me a device that can use IP on a battery. Avoiding that rabbit hole, just saying that it's not just Z-Wave, it's also Zigbee that needs to develop some type of communication pathway to CHIP, and therefore we are actually in communication and working with them."
Thread, meanwhile, is another radio protocol that's set to hand out certifications for some Matter-approved devices. We've detailed the nature and benefits in our complete guide to Thread, but expect it to play an increasingly important role as Matter develops.
How are companies like Google, Apple and Amazon involved?
Matter has been spearheaded by these large smart home brands, and, now that the initial excitement regarding their participation has died down, it's time for them to illustrate exactly what this means moving forward.
Google was one of the first to do this in detail. As part of a blog post outlining four steps that affect the wider Google smart home, the company said that all Nest displays and speakers will be updated to enable them to control Matter-approved devices. That means Google Assistant will be able to control any device with the Matter stamp on it.
Newer devices with support for Thread, like the Google Nest Hub and Nest Wi-Fi, will also be Matter connection hubs, making it easier to use Matter-supported devices around the home.
Interestingly, Google also noted that the Nest Thermostat would support Matter (meaning that, hypothetically, owners would be able to have the device controlled by a different smart assistant), though there was no word on the same for the older Nest Learning Thermostat.
Google will also be supporting Matter through Android phones, which should provide easy support for setup and control through the Google Home app and third-party, proprietary options.
Apple has now provided some details about Matter integration, too, saying that it's going to be supported in iOS 15, meaning you'll be able to use the Home app to manage your Matter devices. Support for Matter accessories within HomeKit should mean more flexibility in how you set up your smart home and how seamlessly it all works together.
What does this mean for you, the smart home user?
The all-important question, then, is what this actually means for you and your smart home.
We've been over how Matter is promising to simplify the decision-making around ecosystems and new devices, but what about your existing devices? Are they getting support?
Well, unfortunately, the answer is very much case-by-case at this stage. For example, Signify - the company behind Philips Hue and WiZ - will be updating old and new Hue gear to work with Matter, while only providing Matter support to future WiZ devices.
Smart lighting maker Nanoleaf has also recently announced that it will be bringing Matter support to both current and future devices.
And, as we detailed in the section above, Google will also bring support to the Nest Thermostat, but not older versions of the device - at least from what it's said so far.
Long story short, any smart home devices that won't receive an update to provide Matter support will still likely be active for a good while yet.
Given that the rollout of Matter has now been delayed until 2022, as well, due to the difficulty in preparing the SDK and certification process, this gives existing devices a little more time, in theory.
However, if Matter accelerates the way it should when it does eventually start connecting devices, legacy models should slowly see a loss of support over the next few years, which obviously isn't ideal.
Writing by Conor Allison. Originally published on 20 May 2021.