(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 Zigbee 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?
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 will happen 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 Google, Apple, Samsung 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, each of them is illustrating 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.
At Google I/O 2022, the company revealed exactly which devices will be updated to become Matter controllers, allowing them to connect to all Matter products and be controlled by the Google Home app, Google Assistant and Android smart home controls. The devices set to get the update include the original Google Home speaker, Google Mini, Nest Mini, Nest Hub (1st and 2nd gen), Nest Hub Max, Nest Audio and Nest Wifi.
Newer devices with support for Thread, like the Nest Wifi, Nest Hub Max and Nest Hub (2nd gen), will become Thread border routers, allowing you to connect to devices built with Thread throughout your 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 and will allow Matter products to be paired "as easy as connecting a new pair of headphones" thanks to Google Fast Pair technology.
Not one to be upstaged by Google, Amazon is set to upgrade its fourth-gen Echo to Thread, using the protocol to create a bridge between itself and a Wi-Fi network. Amazon-owned Eero will also support Matter, with most of its mesh routers already featuring Thread support.
It's not yet clear whether other Echo models with Zigbee chips inside (the same tech that will be upgraded in the fourth-Echo) will also be able to act as a Thread border router, but it certainly appears to be a possibility.
During CES 2022, the company also announced new developer tools to make it easier for Alexa smart home partners to support Matter over Thread.
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 the Home app should mean more flexibility in how you set up your smart home and how seamlessly it all works together.
Samsung has been a very keen party, and notes that the hubs in its SmartThings platform will be upgraded to support Matter. The standard will be able to act as a controller for its smartphones, TVs and smart appliances, though it's not yet clear whether this will be over Wi-Fi or Thread.
At CES 2022, Samsung also announced its new Home Hub will support Matter.
What happens to existing smart home devices?
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, this really depends on their hardware. Fairly new devices that run via Wi-Fi or Thread should upgrade to Matter at some point, either via a software update or through a bridge.
However, devices appear unlikely to be upgraded individually, according to Z-Wave's Klein via The Verge, given that IPv6 carries a heavy software burden that for the majority of products. The silver lining for these devices, with that said, is that the hubs they communicate through are likely to be upgraded or bridged to Matter.
For example, Signify - the company behind Philips Hue and WiZ - will be updating old and new Hue gear to work with Matter (thanks to that Hue Hub), 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.
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. Luckily for consumers, this isn't a case of chucking all your kit away and starting again - manufacturers and the CSA appear to be doing everything they can to link up existing gadgets.
Should you wait to buy new smart home gadgets?
So, we're currently in the awkward period between Matter's announcement and its actual arrival. With Matter likely to launch midway through the year, many consumers will likely be left wondering whether or not to press ahead with smart home purchases or wait.
When we asked the Connectivity Standards Alliance's CEO Tobin Richardson on the Pocket-lint Podcast in January 2022, he suggested that customers continue to dive in and build up their smart homes.
"The important part is getting the experience you want today," he said.
"I'm looking at a couple of new thermostats for our house right now. They aren't Matter enabled, obviously, because it's not out just yet, but we know that they're Wi-Fi based - or the company has indicated that their products will be updated. Go out and get the one that makes sense for you. A lot of this will be worked out by the companies themselves, in terms of software updates."