Making Smart Homes Smarter with Matter
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The following is the third in a four-part series written by industry expert Bob O’Donnell.
The idea of a smart home, filled with connected intelligent devices designed to make our lives both easier and more rewarding, has been around for a while now. In fact, hundreds of millions of homes around the world arguably already qualify as smart homes, based on their smart speakers and connected devices such as doorbells, light bulbs, cameras and even washing machines.
But if you were to ask many of these homeowners whether they thought their smart home reality matched up to the vision they expected, you might hear a fair amount of frustration. It’s not that those individual products aren’t doing their job – it’s that getting multiple products from different vendors (and ecosystems) to work together often proves to be more challenging than most people realize. As a result, while people may enjoy the benefits of individual connected devices, they’re not able to fully appreciate the potential of what all these smart home devices could achieve collectively in concert. This may be about to change.
A big part of the problem has been the variety of different standards and protocols that various players in the smart home device world have chosen to use. Not only are there the difficulties of dealing with WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave and Thread from a physical connection perspective, but there’s also the issue of different means of communication at the application layer. Recognizing these challenges, numerous large ecosystem vendors (notably Apple, Amazon and Google) as well as many other smart home device and component makers, including Silicon Labs, got together to layout a framework that could overcome these compatibility issues. The original name for this unified smart home standard was Project CHIP (Connected Home over IP, or Internet Protocol), but it has subsequently been renamed Matter.
What’s fascinating about Matter is that it essentially takes the best of multiple existing smart home-related technologies and puts them all together in a consumer-friendly manner. Specifically, it uses the device discovery protocols from Bluetooth, the IP-based mesh-capable wireless connectivity of WiFi for high-power connections and Thread for lower power ones, and the Zigbee Cluster Library data model for describing devices and their capabilities from Zigbee into a coherent whole. Plus, Matter defines security, encryption and authentication mechanisms based on a Zero Trust model for things like device-to-device connections, as well as over-the-air updates. In addition, recognizing the large installed base of existing smart home devices, the Matter standard also allows for bridges to enable connections with at least some existing smart home devices that leverage Zigbee and Z-Wave.
Thankfully, consumers will never have to worry about this, however, because the simple inclusion of a Matter-certified logo will mean that connected door locks, light bulbs and any other devices, as well as the software applications and cloud-based services meant to control them will all simply work together, and in a secure fashion—regardless of the manufacturer. Behind the scenes, because the Matter protocol defines multiple layers of the classic OSI networking stack, it handles physical connections, authentication mechanisms and even the transfer of common data models at the networking application layer.
Frankly, it’s both a challenging and comprehensive goal and part of the reason it’s taken a while to get the process completed is because of its extensive nature. The good news is the certification process for Matter is expected to begin in the first half of 2022, while the first Matter-certified products are set for the second half of 2022.
Not surprisingly, bringing all these elements together requires a great deal of effort, particularly when it comes to low-level capabilities such as simultaneous radio signaling, protocol bridging and security implementations. Silicon Labs, for their part, has experience designing and building chips that support all these smart home radio technologies. In addition, security components, such as the company’s Secure Vault, are optimized for on-chip storage of things like hardware IDs, encrypted data and more. Finally, and arguably most importantly, Silicon Labs has a great deal of experience writing software to tie all these elements together. In fact, 20% of Matter’s source code was provided by Silicon Labs.
The ultimate goal of Matter—to make smart home realities finally match the promise of smart home visions—is something that everyone related to the connected device industry can appreciate. In fact, while the initial focus for Matter is on smart homes, the capabilities it enables and standardizes are relevant for industrial and other forms of Internet of Things (IoT) applications as well. End users for any of these products, as well as the companies that design and build them, can all benefit from a solid, comprehensive standard that has buy-in from important industry leaders as well as critical component suppliers.
It’s been a long time coming, but it certainly appears that Matter can really start to make IoT applications of all kinds, well, matter.
You can follow Bob O’Donnell on Twitter @bobodtech.