Michele Turner, senior director of the Google Smart Home Ecosystem, doesn’t try to swerve the question when I ask her why Matter is still yet to launch. She’s very clear about it.
“The reason that we delayed was because we want to make sure that when it launches, and when it’s in people’s homes, it has to work flawlessly,” she told me earlier this month. “It can’t be halfway there.”
It’s clear that, despite any setbacks, Turner is very excited about what Matter will bring to the smart home as a whole.
“We are feeling good about where we’re at right now for the full launch. Things are starting to look good,” she assured me.
“We really like we’ve got a high bar for quality and reliability, and that it has to be a hit in the home. Back in spring, we weren’t on track to hit it. And now we are.”
The ‘we’ she is referring to is not just Google, but fellow tech giants Apple, Amazon and Samsung; as well as a wide range of existing big name smart home brands, all brought together with a common objective.
The idea of Matter began when the Zigbee Alliance managed to get Google, Apple and Amazon sat down around a table in early 2019.
In depth: Matter and the smart home explainer
That initial meeting bore immediate fruit – the mission to “fix the smart home” was formalized initially as Project Unity, and was announced to the public in December that year as the Connected Home over IP project: AKA Project Chip.
It will, therefore, be almost three years later then that we’ll finally see the project in the real world, as devices land carrying the Matter branding the initiative has adopted.
Turner told us it will be worth the wait.
“We’re looking at early 2023, when this is going to be in people’s homes starting to roll out more in mass and it’s going to work, it has to work flawlessly.”
“I think for consumers it’s actually going to be pretty simple and it’s going to make their smart home lives a lot simpler, with a really reduced complexity that they have to face today.”
Turner is, of course, referring to the multitude of different smart home ecosystems, protocols, apps and controllers that we have to live with today.
It’s a problem that was already apparent in 2019, due to the exponential growth of likes of Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit.
And that’s why the biggest players in tech decided something needed to be done in order to prevent a blossoming, but highly fragmented industry, being built on precarious foundations.
“Those challenges we knew were barriers to mainstream adoption of the smart home technology as a whole,” Turner explained. “And that’s how this got started.
“The smart home industry just was not going to hit mainstream adoption unless we solved some really foundational issues. It was a great call to get everybody together and see if we could fix this as an industry initiative.”
In the weeks and months leading up to the 2019 meeting, the Zigbee Alliance found that it was having similar conversations with different brands and put itself at the center of a movement to streamline the smart home and maximise its potential.
Despite the initial rollout of Matter not being built using Zigbee – instead relying on Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Low Energy and Thread – the Zigbee Alliance was the driving force and was rebranded as the Connectivity Standards Alliance.
Explainer: What is Thread
And Turner says that all of the initial members brought something unique and useful to the table.
“There’s a big chunk of Zigbee technology that’s in Matter,” she explained. “So we took like the best of Zigbee, we also took a lot of capability that the Google team had been building out on top of Thread with an internal protocol that we called Weave.
“The QR code setup seems really similar to what you do with HomeKit today. Apple contributed a lot in terms of some of that technology to be able to get that in there. So it was really taking the best of a lot of existing technologies, some of which was proprietary to Google and Apple at the time, and contributing to this open source standard.”
That QR code setup, Turner explained, means you can have your Matter smart home devices synced in seconds, with no need for additional apps or smart home hubs… sort of.
Thread is set to play a huge part of Matter and, while Matter will also use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to talk directly to your smartphone, you will need a Thread border router in order to get Thread-enabled devices singing and dancing.
The good news there is that you probably already have a Thread border router in your house. Google has been putting Thread into its devices for years now (for that Weave network Turner mentioned) and the likes of the Nest Hub Max smart display, 2nd-gen Nest Hub and the Google Nest Wifi mesh router can all now act as border routers.
The Apple HomePod Mini contains a Thread border router, as does the latest-gen Apple TV 4K, and you will find Thread border routers in the Amazon 4th-gen Echo smart speaker and a range of Eero mesh routers.
The double good news is that all these border routers will be brand agnostic and Thread itself can be enabled in millions of existing devices using an over the air firmware update.
“It’s funny because when we started that we said we don’t want any hubs in the home, right, we want to get rid of that proliferation of little plastic boxes attached to your router,” Turner told us.
“I think it’s really cool that we’ve taken devices that are already multifunction devices like smart speakers or displays, and we have enabled those to be Matter hubs so you don’t need that additional hardware.”
Turner explained how Matter devices will be able to use multiple smart home platforms; the idea being that it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a mix of Google Home or Alexa users in a household, or maybe an iPad where you’d like HomeKit controls.
“We’re going to give you the interface in the Google Home app so that you can do sort of a batch pull over into HomeKit,” she explained.
“So it’ll work with HomeKit as well, or it will work with Alexa, or it will work with Samsung. So we’re looking at how do we make that as simple as possible for users to be able to get their devices into that cross ecosystem environment.”
Matter will, undoubtably, provide a boost to the smart home industry as a whole, and will be a much needed drop in complexity for consumers. But Turner is keen to point out that there’s a still a way to go.
“Matter has got a lot of buzz around it right now, which is great. But it doesn’t solve all the problems.
“Like we’ve still got problems to solve around automation. How do we create that truly more much more proactive home?
“Matter is not going to solve that problem. But we’re solving the foundation. We’re finally creating a bedrock for smart home that’s stable and consistent and is everything it needs to be in order to build on top of it.
“Matter is going to enable by being a really solid foundation. But there’s so much more that we have to do, to get the true promise of this out to consumers.”
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