Is Matter Stifling Smart Home Innovation?

With all due respect to the parties that are working hard to develop it, the Matter standard is struggling. Sure, it’s a new protocol and it will get better. But how much better? How long will that take? And if I’m a manufacturer or consumer, should I hold off on new products until I find out? This last question seems to be answering itself – the smart home market is slowing down.

What's the Matter?

Even if we grant a mulligan on the it’s-still-early story, there’s no doubting that Matter’s year one report card has raised some concerns. The eagerly awaited 1.1 update added no new device classes and was in essence a set of bug fixes. Matter still doesn’t work with cameras, doorbells or other common smart home products. Yes, these things take time. But if you make and sell these popular items and you’re not Amazon or Google, time is not on your side.

Speaking of Amazon and Google – and Apple, Samsung and the other giants behind Matter – their presence alone is giving smaller makers sleepless nights when it comes to new products. Matter specifies interoperability, but only within its confines. Brand-specific features that differentiate products are only accessible outside of those confines; the user can only get them by switching to each brand’s individual app. Will mainstream consumers bother with that, day in and day out? Or will Ring, Nest, SmartThings or HomeKit simply end up as the default UX/UI out of sheer user exhaustion, thereby making all beyond-Matter features seem a bit optimistic?

What If Everyone Doesn't Play Nice?

Making it hard to choose competing interoperable products has a dark history. It's worth noting that this year is the 25th anniversary of the landmark antitrust case against Microsoft. The boys from Redmond were charged with a market monopoly by making it difficult for end users to install competing web and multimedia software on Windows, while at the same time making it hard to uninstall the company's browser, Internet Explorer. Microsoft was found guilty, then parts of the judgment were overturned on appeal, and finally there was a settlement.

Nobody’s crying monopoly when so many big parties are behind the open Matter standard. Still, what’s there to stop any or all of the Matter giants from making it – shall we say, inconvenient – to move from app to app? Or worse, not worth it? Left to their own devices (no pun intended) wouldn’t natural market forces pretty much bring us to a consolidated world where the “monopoly” is shared by a handful of companies and becomes the less easy-to-say oligopoly?

Collateral Damage

The “what if” and “what about” questions around Matter are still profound a year after launch, with unfortunate blowback across the entire smart home landscape. Belkin was the first to balk, and dropped its Matter plans less than six months after the spec was published. There was some nervousness that Philips might follow suit for its Hue lighting system, but the company has just announced a Matter software update, after some troubling delays.

Matter was released to a lot of hype, with the result that many manufacturers have been waiting for the spec to mature, rather continuing to innovate, perhaps with other protocols they’ve already been using. Market confusion about what will work with what and when has played a part too – consumers don’t want to invest in hardware that goes obsolete. They’re already concerned that many of their existing products might be obsolete and won’t work with Matter without buying a new multi-radio hub. How many interesting Z-Wave or ZigBee products (or businesses) got delayed or de-funded while their makers waited for Matter’s dust to settle?

The Rich Got Richer

Whenever there’s a new standard there’s bound to be some confusion. In the case of Matter, that seems to have been compounded by a vision that reflects the market aims and prowess of the very-very big companies that make up its leadership. Smaller competitors have it tougher. Companies that want to develop Matter products have to pay $9,000 to $13,000 for each certified product, plus buy a CSA membership that costs at least $7,000 per year. For most startups, these are real barriers.

As we head into Matter’s sophomore year, these and other issues need to be addressed, the sooner the better. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a solution that has limited native features and in practical terms, corrals the user experience instead of freeing it.

That can’t be what they were going for. Or can it?

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Senior Partner Lew Brown oversees bluesalve partners' health tech practice. Lew has deep expertise in consumer IoT, consumer technologies and consumer goods, and excels in bringing new products and technologies to market.