Technology

2023 in the smart home: Matter’s broken promises

On Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I finished a big bathroom remodel project we’d worked on for months. The final step was to replace our old toggle light switches with modern, paddle-style ones. As I sat on the bathroom floor with the four TP-Link Tapo Matter smart switches I had bought on a Black Friday deal, my husband eyed them suspiciously. “The first time these turn the lights off on me while I’m in the shower, I’m ripping them out,” he said. 

His fear was not unfounded. My previous attempts to smarten our bathroom lighting using smart bulbs and motion sensors had not gone well. But this time would be different, I assured him — because of Matter. 

Twelve months in, I do not have one Matter-based device working reliably in my home.

Matter, which officially arrived at the end of 2022, is the biggest smart home story of 2023. It is designed to fix some fundamental problems of the smart home by providing an easy, streamlined setup process for devices, interoperability between platforms so you don’t have to stay in one company’s walled garden, and reliable and secure local connectivity.

This year was the year we started to get actual Matter devices and the year the big smart home platforms (slowly) began to adopt it. Backed by all the big names — Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, Ikea, Comcast, Philips Hue, LG, and more — Matter is meant to make the smart home easier. 

I’ve been testing Matter devices all year, and it has been the most frustrating year of my decade-plus experience with smart home devices. Twelve months in, I do not have one Matter-based device working reliably in my home. To make matters worse (yeah, I know), the one system that’s always been rock solid, my Philips Hue smart lights, is basically unusable in any of my smart home platforms since I moved it to Matter. 

I do believe Matter can fix key issues in the smart home

So, why did I just wire four Matter smart switches into my wall? Because, despite my experiences, I do believe Matter can fix key issues in the smart home. I’m willing to be a guinea pig. But if we don’t see concrete changes soon, there is a real chance it could all fall apart. If I have to rip those smart switches out of my bathroom wall and tell my husband he was right, I will be a very grumpy smart home reviewer. 

Matter’s promise of secure, reliable, local connectivity for smart home devices without dependence on proprietary protocols (or setting up your own server) is compelling. That a Matter device can work with all the major smart home platforms — including Apple Home, Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Samsung SmartThings — is legitimately awesome. And the option to run your smart gadgets without relying on the cloud is critical to consumer trust in the smart home. Not only can you keep your data local, but it should go some way toward solving the problem of companies being able to reach in and remove functions from your smart devices at will.

Matter also has the power to level the smart home playing field. By providing interoperability, Matter is removing platform compatibility as a differentiator. This means smart home devices can become commodities —  in other words, cheap. The only reason to pay more for a product like a light switch or door lock will be because it offers better features or a sleeker industrial design — not just because it works with Apple Home. 

Matter meant I could choose a switch that fit my aesthetics and budget, not just because it worked with a specific platform.

Case in point: those four Tapo Matter smart switches cost me $12 each, $50 total (granted, they were on sale from $25). Before Matter, if I wanted a paddle-style smart switch that worked locally in my home and with all four platforms, my best option would have cost me between $40 and $60 per switch. Matter meant I could choose a switch that fit my aesthetics and budget, not just because it worked with a specific platform. You know, the way you choose almost everything else you buy. 

But so far, giving Apple Home users more and cheaper device options is one of only a couple tangible improvements Matter has brought to the smart home. Here’s a look at Matter’s biggest promises to date, how they’ve been broken or left unkept, and what needs to be done to keep them.

Yes, by and large, you can buy any Matter device, and it will work with any voice assistant or platform. But the big caveat here is that you will only get some of the features of that device on some platforms. 

For example, if you connect your Philips Hue smart bulbs to Apple Home via Matter, you can’t use Apple Home’s adaptive lighting features. If you pair an Eve Energy smart plug with Amazon Alexa, you lose its energy monitoring feature. If you add Govee’s Matter light strip to your smart home platform of choice, you can’t play with any of its cool lighting effects. This sets users up for a poor experience and means they need to head back to the manufacturer’s app to get the features they’ve paid for.

It’s not a requirement of Matter that a platform supports all device types. It should be.

Additionally, not all Matter device types are supported by all platforms. When Matter was launched, the promise was if a device had the Matter logo on, it would “just work” in your home and you could set it up with your smart home system of choice. That’s not the case.

The Tuo smart button has a Matter logo and doesn’t work with Google Home or Amazon Alexa — because those platforms don’t support generic switches in Matter yet (which is what a smart button is). This might be a minor example, but there are many more device types coming with no guarantee from the major platforms that they will support them. This is because it’s not a requirement of Matter that a platform supports all device types. It should be.

Beyond just working with any smart home platform, Matter devices should be able to work with every smart home platform simultaneously. This feature of Matter — called multi-admin — is the one I was most excited about. I should be able to set up my bathroom light switches and have them controllable by Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa — heck, even Samsung’s Bixby if I want. 

But multi-admin is completely broken. I have tried to get multiple Matter devices set up in two, three, and sometimes four ecosystems at once (the limit is five), and it just does not work. If I manage to connect a device to more than one platform, invariably, it soon shows offline in one or the other platform and, in some cases, completely disappears from it altogether. 

I encountered this most recently when setting up Philips Hue lights in Matter. I started by adding my Hue Bridge to Apple Home via Matter — the new default setup option — which brought all my connected Hue bulbs into the platform. I then added the bridge to Amazon Alexa from Apple Home using the Matter multi-admin process. Within a few hours, the Hue lights stopped responding in Apple Home, and some dropped out of the Alexa app. When I removed the Hue Bridge from Alexa, the lights started working in Apple Home again. Someone is not playing nicely here.

Now that Matter is here, these companies are wholly unmotivated to ensure their platforms work well with their direct competitors

Similarly, the TP-Link Tapo smart switches worked fine when set up in Apple Home until I added them to Google Home. At this point, two of the switches dropped offline on both platforms. Clearly, co-parenting is hard. 

The Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), the group behind Matter, knows that multi-admin is a mess and is actively working on a solution. But the problem, as I see it, is that now that Matter is here and these companies can build their experiences on this more secure, stable connectivity platform, they are wholly unmotivated to ensure their platforms work well with their direct competitors.

This was a big promise out of the gates. Any Matter controller can control any Matter device; you won’t need proprietary hubs, bridges, or smart home controllers to run your smart home. Everything will work locally over Thread and Wi-Fi. Thread border routers — which can be built into anything, from fridges to light fixtures to Wi-Fi routers — will mean no more white boxes dangling from our routers. 

This may be true in the smart home of 2050, but today 50 percent of the Matter devices in my home work (when they work) through a bridge (Aqara, SwitchBot, Hue). The dozen or so Thread border routers in my home have formed their own proprietary Thread networks based on their manufacturer and don’t talk to each other.

I need an Apple Home hub, an Alexa Echo or Eero Wi-Fi router, a SmartThings hub, or a Google smart speaker or Wi-Fi router to set up a Matter device in its respective platforms. I get why I would need an Apple Home controller to use Apple Home; I never expected a Google Nest Hub to run Apple Home automations. But the promise that any Matter controller will work with any Matter device and let you set it up in any Matter ecosystem is still misleading at best.

This support page from Eve, which attempts to explain to a user which hub they will need to use their Thread devices in Matter, perfectly illustrates the current state of this hub-free standard.

Setting up a Matter device should mean you don’t have to download another manufacturer app, create another account, or give another company your email address. You should simply open your smart home app of choice, scan the Matter code, and be good to go. 

To give credit where credit is due, when this works, it is indeed an excellent experience. Setting up a Matter device in one platform is a simple, streamlined process, it’s one I’m even comfortable recommending my 76-year-old dad do with his iPhone, Alexa app, and Echo Show. This is the biggest success of the standard so far.

But when it doesn’t work, or when your device disconnects (see above and below for more on this) and you have to reset it and then set it back up, that’s when you’ll need a computer science degree (or a smart home reviewer on speed dial), to get the device back into Matter. 

In its quest for simplicity, Matter (and its bedfellow Thread) has become obtuse.

In its quest for simplicity, Matter (and its bedfellow Thread) has become obtuse. There are no tools users can easily apply to troubleshoot issues. And with so many companies involved in every device, finger-pointing is rampant.

Manufacturers, who are often the first place people start yelling, know this. The troubleshooting steps that TP-Link, Eve, Nanoleaf, and others have put in place to help customers are valiant attempts but completely belie the promise of simplicity. They also often recommend you pair the device to their app first (along with creating that account) for the best experience, negating the promise that you will only need one app. 

Those TP-Link Tapo smart switches I installed refused to connect directly to Apple Home using the Matter pairing code. With my husband glaring at me through a handful of electrical wires, I quickly defaulted to the Tapo app, where they paired immediately. When I went back to add them to Apple Home and then Google Home through Matter, two dropped offline on both platforms but continued to work fine in the Tapo app. 

Not in my house. Since moving my Hue lightbulbs to Matter, they consistently show as unresponsive or updating in the Apple Home app, but I can control them instantly and with no issues in the Hue app. The same with the Tapo light switches, and I had a similar experience in long-term testing of the Govee Matter light strip, the Nanoleaf Essentials smart bulbs, and the Tapo TP-Link smart plug. There are also several Matter devices that I’ve not ever managed to connect to Matter — the SwitchBot Hub 2, an Eve Motion sensor, a Meross Matter smart plug; the list goes on.

I’ve talked to several companies about the issues I’ve had in my home, and they are all keen to point out that my setup is unique. I have a lot of smart home devices, and there are currently a few digital clones of my house set up across the country from Seattle to Cupertino (and possibly even in the Netherlands) to try to replicate some of the issues I’ve had. Granted, my setup may be causing some of the issues, but plenty of other reviewers have had problems with Matter devices and, judging by this poll on the Matter subreddit and these Apple HomeKit users’ experiences, users are, too.

Interoperability and a robust Thread network are still a pipe dream for the rest of us.

Thread and Wi-Fi are the two protocols the IP-based Matter works over (along with Ethernet for bridging devices like the Hue bridge). These technologies are sound — in testing Thread devices, I’ve been impressed with the speed and reliability the protocol produces. It’s somewhere along the line that the Matter implementation is flawed.

The current state of Thread border routers, where those from different manufacturers won’t necessarily join an existing Thread network and instead create their own, is still negating one of Thread’s best features: a reliable, self-healing mesh network. When you add Matter and its ecosystem interoperability problem on top of that, it all goes sideways quickly.

Perhaps if you are setting up a smart home from scratch, buy an Apple TV, a Google Nest hub, and four Nanoleaf lightbulbs, then set them all up with your iPhone, you might have a smooth experience. But interoperability and a robust Thread network are still a pipe dream for the rest of us.

The one thing I’ve heard loud and clear from every manufacturer I’ve spoken to this year is that making Matter devices is complicated and expensive. For many companies, it’s a lot of work for seemingly little reward.

Yale hasn’t yet released its promised Matter module for its flagship smart lock because it says Matter isn’t ready. Eve and Nanoleaf have bet their respective companies on Matter and Thread and now have to pivot because the protocol has not kept up with its promises.

Eve is developing individual partnerships with platforms to keep energy monitoring on its smart plug (something Matter is supposed to support but doesn’t yet). Nanoleaf is releasing Wi-Fi-based lights after telling everyone Thread was the future. And smart lock maker Level, which announced months ago that it was upgrading its locks to Thread, just released a Wi-Fi bridge instead.

The promise that manufacturers only have to develop for one standard has failed to materialize.

On top of this, the promise that manufacturers only have to develop for one standard — Matter — and not have to also jump through Amazon’s Works With Alexa or Google’s Works With Google hoops has also failed to materialize. This is partly because consumers don’t know the Matter logo yet, so they are still looking for the one from their preferred platform on the box. To have those Works With logos on a product, manufacturers need to go through each certification process.

But it’s also because manufacturers are realizing they can’t rely solely on Matter; they also need direct connections to platforms such as HomeKit and Alexa as a backup for when Matter fails. That way, they won’t end up with a warehouse full of returns.

All of these issues contribute to perhaps Matter’s biggest problem: too few devices that work with Matter. Even if you wanted to build your smart home entirely on Matter right now, you couldn’t. Sure, if all you want is a smart switch, plug, or bulb, and maybe some sensors, you’re good to go. But outside of that, it’s slim pickings.

There is one thermostat, a couple of door locks, some dimmer switches, and a handful of smart shades. Despite the fanfare of nine new device types being added with Matter 1.2, we still don’t have a single product you can buy and put in your home in any of those new categories. 

One day you won’t even consider buying a smart home device that doesn’t support Matter.

Additionally, despite early promises that existing devices would be upgradable to Matter, some companies appear to have abandoned initial plans to do so, instead saying they will now produce new devices. The final Matter 1.0 code was much beefier than anticipated, likely causing the about-turns we saw this year from companies like Nanoleaf, Schlage, and Level. There are also several manufacturers who promised new Matter devices this year or launched products saying Matter would be coming but have failed to deliver in 2023.

One reason behind the delays goes back to Matter’s other biggest problem: the platforms. A combination of slow rollouts of support for all the pieces of Matter (Amazon didn’t support Thread until May of this year, and bridging didn’t arrive until September) and a lack of feature parity between Matter and existing options (no energy monitoring or advanced lighting features) has frustrated users and manufacturers alike.

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I still believe Matter is the solution the smart home needs. As I’ve said before, it can become the primary, open connectivity standard for the smart home moving forward. Just like Bluetooth for headphones and Wi-Fi for laptops, one day, you won’t even consider buying a smart home device that doesn’t support Matter. 

But we are a long, long, long way from that point. And to get there, a lot of companies will need to put in a lot more work.

I still believe Matter is the solution the smart home needs.

This next year, starting with CES 2024, will be critical for Matter. We’re beyond the “just getting started” stage and should be into the “enjoy the fruits of our labor” stage. CSA leadership can keep stressing that “Matter is a journey,” and that we need to be patient because what is being done here is unprecedented and a huge effort. But Matter has to deliver at some point. Soon. 

If momentum stalls, the companies that have been dipping their toes into the concept will pull out. Those who are more invested may start pulling back resources from a project that is losing them money and doesn’t have a clear monetization path, and those who have been sitting on the sidelines and “watching closely” will be grinning behind their proprietary protocols. 

And then, despite everyone’s best intentions, the smart home will be right back where it started. Only — in the immortal words of XKCD — with one more competing standard.

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