Suppliers, not matter, are the root of the problem - Stacey on IoT

Cupertino, August 7, 2023

This story was originally published on Friday, August 4, 2023 in my weekly newsletter. You can sign up for that newsletter here. Last week I had my third frustrating experience with the Matter device. But it's time I stopped blaming the Matter spec for the challenges I'm facing. My problems really lie with the suppliers of the ecosystem. That's ironic considering these vendors are the ones who teamed up in 2019 to create Matter to enable smart home device interoperability. Having covered technology for over two decades, I've seen how large companies can get behind a standard and then sabotage it from the inside out, whether intentionally or not. I'm not here to say that Amazon, Google, or Apple are intentionally making Matter's rollout a crappy experience for consumers, but I'm here to say that their decisions make Matter seem broken. Earlier this year, you couldn't add a Matter device using Apple's Home app because Apple was still upgrading the HomeKit architecture. Image courtesy of Kevin Tofel. One of the big points of potential confusion with the Matter ecosystem is that it divides devices into two camps: controllers and devices. It also offers two device connectivity options: Thread or Wi-Fi. This provides ample opportunity for consumer confusion when choosing devices that work together. If a consumer buys a Thread device, but then buys a Wi-Fi-only Matter product, the two devices need a controller to communicate with each other. This conundrum actually has nothing to do with the vendors, and the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which manages the Matter standard, is aware of it. Perhaps one day we will see more clarification or education from the CSA on labeling Matter devices to address the potential for consumer misunderstanding and eventual product returns. But there are other areas where the Matter experience falls short, and the blame seems to fall squarely on the sellers. Let's start with the obvious. Many vendors have rolled out support for Matter unevenly. For example, Apple experienced a bit of a hiccup updating the Home app on iOS to support Matter, making it a challenge for months to add Matter devices using an iPhone. That has now been resolved. Amazon began its support for Matter devices focusing only on bulbs, switches, and smart bulbs. And it only supported controlling these devices over Wi-Fi until May, when it also started adding Thread support. Today, Amazon supports in-wall switches, in addition to light bulbs, plugs, sensors, thermostats, and locks. An Amazon spokesperson told me Amazon will add support for more devices over time. Google has put a lot of effort into introducing new device types over time and has relied on Matter to add more functionality to its overall smart home platform, but it still doesn't support all of Matter's device types. Sam Gabbay, the CEO of smart button maker Tuo, says Google had supported its Matter-based smart button, but then something changed and Google no longer supports generic switches. Also, the iOS version of Google Home did not support adding Matter devices for months, but this has now been fixed. Google has not returned my request for comment. Meanwhile, SmartThings has been incredibly proactive as a Matter-based controller owner. The company has worked with Google, Apple and Amazon to ensure that Matter devices can be controlled on SmartThings controllers across different ecosystems, as the Matter standard intended. This required Samsung, which owns the SmartThings platform, to be proactive and work with each company to ensure all relevant credentials and data were shared properly. And this brings us to a second point of potential sabotage (or just a potential point of consumer confusion): Thread references. When it comes to Thread devices, sometimes users can get a Matter device on a network only to find out that the network the device is on isn't visible to a controller. What probably happened is that the new Thread device was set up in its own separate network because the consumer chose to add a Thread device with a different controller. That's what happened to Kevin when he was trying out some Nanoleaf lights. After adding them, he realized they couldn't communicate with other Thread entries because they were on a different network. Some people accused him of setting the lights on the "wrong" controller, but it's not unreasonable to expect that if someone buys a Matter-certified set of lights and tries to set them up with a Matter-certified controller, the process should work. . Kevin's challenge is a known issue. It's because of how certain vendors handle Thread networks. It is possible and even likely that a home has several Thread border routers capable of translating between different Thread devices and the Wi-Fi network. But having multiple threaded networks poses a challenge if the devices on one network can't talk to devices on another network. The Thread standard allows this, but the question is how to share credentials. Frank Oliver-Grün, a German journalist, explains in this blog post: In Matter, however, the ideal of complete neutrality has not yet been achieved. Currently (as of July 2023) there are border routers that only work in certain ecosystems. If you combine models from different manufacturers, you can end up with parallel Thread networks instead of a common mesh where all devices are connected. This is the result of how Matter ecosystems manage the access data (credentials) to such Thread networks. For example, Amazon stores them encrypted on its servers and sends them to the device via a secure connection during installation. Apple uses the keychain of iOS for this, Android the corresponding counterpart of its Google Play Services. Samsung has developed Knox Matrix. To join a Thread network, new Thread devices - including Border Routers - must have submitted these credentials. If that exchange does not take place within the same ecosystem, but between Apple and Google, for example, then one company must share its information with the other – in a secure and controlled manner. Google and Samsung SmartThings have made agreements about this, as have Apple and Google. The post goes on to note that Amazon is not yet sharing credentials, which means that devices set up with an Amazon Thread network cannot communicate with devices connected to an alternate Thread network. This is a challenge for companies building Thread devices. Gabbay told me this in our conversation and Nanoleaf discusses the issue in its documentation. Will Amazon change this? Don't know. The company has said it's keeping Matter's rollout slow because it doesn't want to break things or confuse its millions of customers. It has already worked with Samsung and other major vendors to make some elements of Matter seamless. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the CSA said via email that the organization encourages companies to support as many devices as possible, but that "decisions about adding features or supporting specific device types are up to individual members. [sic] companies based on their own product roadmaps and timelines.” This means companies with controllers don't have to bring in full support for products over time. So there is still plenty of work for Amazon, Apple, Google and the CSA. Matter needed to make the smart home work better for mainstream consumers. Today it is still hit or miss whether your Matter experience will be good or bad.

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