How Matter became the future of the smart home

Tobin Richardson on Matter, the messy state of the smart home, and the path forward to the future we all want.

How Matter became the future of the smart home

In Matter's version of the smart home, all your devices can control ... all your devices.

Photo: Dan Farrell / Unsplash

For the first time, it looks like the smart home industry is on the path to being … smart. In large part, that’s because most of the companies in the space have decided to work together to support a standard called Matter that governs the way devices talk to each other, and would ensure that devices can interoperate and communicate no matter where they came from.

Tobin Richardson is the CEO of the Connectivity Standards Alliance, the organization responsible for creating, certifying and controlling Matter. His organization counts a huge number of consumer-tech companies as members, from Google and Apple and Amazon to Ikea and Comcast. Richardson’s job is to wrangle all these players, including some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies, toward a single vision for the future of the smart home. It’s not always easy.

Richardson joined the Source Code podcast to explain the history of the CSA and Matter, why all these companies finally decided to work together, and what it takes to keep a lot of opinionated engineers on task and on mission.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

I think these sorts of standards bodies are mostly funky black boxes that nobody quite understands, and then just out of them come big ideas about the future. So maybe let's just start at the very beginning: It was the ZigBee Alliance, and now it's the Connectivity Standards Alliance. Tell me the very basic story of this group.

So over 20 years ago, the ZigBee Alliance was created to do really low-power wireless data, sensor-control networks. And the idea at that point was almost like a low-power Wi-Fi. And the idea there was not just getting to web pages, but effectively creating a technology where you could have sensor and control networks in a smart home, a smart building, smart utility networks and things like that. And so these organizations all start off by a handful of companies — in that case, about 15 — coming together, contributing the technology, and they agree to work together instead of compete in certain areas. It's very similar to the way Wi-Fi started, the way that Bluetooth started. Those are fairly popular and well-known technologies, and they're managed by organizations like ours.

Organizations like ours effectively just get created to be a contribution from industry. These companies realize this technology's so important to how all of these devices work together, we have to contribute to that, and we have to do it in a safe place where we know that we can contribute equally, and we're not going to be treated unfairly by the organization itself or by other organizations. And so we set up these independent organizations where the best engineers from these companies come together, they agree on how their devices will work together, and then the organization takes it over at that point and runs certification and testing programs, so that it's not favoring any one company or another.

It seems like you would have to sometimes be a really strong team player and coordinator and bring everybody together. And then other times, you'd have to be kind of a ruthless dictator. “Hey large company, you don’t get to have your way.”

It’s precisely that. You have to find a way to make it comfortable enough that they're happy to participate and contribute, but also level enough that it isn't just a big giant — and there are big giants out there — dominating the whole process and dominating the standard itself. Because it just doesn't simply work.

So in the U.S., you see a number of these large ones involved in Matter, like Amazon and Google and Apple, and they're doing great work. And they're contributing a ton of resources and people and expertise, which is invaluable to a good standard. But that won't make a global standard, right? That's why you have to have Xiaomi, Deutsche Telekom, Bang & Olufsen, Ikea. So it isn't just one big company or a lot of big companies, it isn't just one region of tech companies.

Let's talk about Matter in particular. As somebody who's been following the smart home for a long time, in all its ugly twists and turns, it feels like Matter is a thing that this space needed. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that the ZigBee Alliance has been working on for a long time, but it seems like something must have happened in the last couple of years where all of a sudden, really for the first time, all the big players are coming together and saying, “OK, this thing only works if it's bigger than any one of us.” How did that come together?

Like a lot of overnight success stories, this one's been in the works for about 10 years. There are two parts to it. One was, let's call it, the organic evolution of ZigBee standards. And then the second was the evolution of the market.

On the technical side, within ZigBee, as we created those networks, as our members put these into the market, one of the things we've discovered is that it's great to have low-power Wi-Fi or something like that, but I can’t just carry a message across — the message actually has to be pretty specific in terms of what it's doing. And if it's the wrong one, the device on the other end is not going to do the right thing. And so this whole language of devices really evolved through the natural evolution of ZigBee networks.

On the market side, you have this natural evolution: We test the market, we see if it works, we find its ceiling and natural boundary conditions. And so you saw four or five products within an ecosystem, that's really cool, but they can't talk to another one. Plus it does this rejoining thing. And if a node drops off the network, something strange happens, and now I have to find the QR code or something like that. So each company was thinking, “If I come up with a right way to solve this, everybody's going to come to me for the next device, everyone's going to come to me to run their ecosystem, everyone's going to come back to me.”

Well, to a degree that works. But I think what large and small companies figured out and really started to realize two or three years ago, when this really started taking off, was that this is not going to happen by one company. As big as some of these monsters are, they can't sell the whole market, and the market won't take off. So this is not just systems architects that look at the whole system. These are companies that have to sell these products in the market. And that's really powerful.

As big as some of these monsters are, they can't sell the whole market, and the market won't take off.

So what was the moment three years ago? A lot of conversations that started 10 years ago. And they said, “No, we're not ready yet. We don't want to do this.” And then you talk to their business leads and they’re like, “Why would I walk away from a billion-dollar line of business right now to invest in this?”

So once a quarter you’re calling somebody at all of these companies going, “Hey, whenever you're ready, I'm still here.” Is there ever a moment when you hang up the call and you’re like, “OK, now’s the time”?

I think when the biggest companies in the market came in. Amazon came in early, but when Apple and Google saw that their product roadmaps really ticked and tied with where Matter was headed, that was a big point. But it wasn't just the North American companies, because then it would just be a Silicon Valley standard. But buy-in also came from European companies. We had companies in China, companies in France and in Sweden and other places that gave it the critical mass. But two and a half years ago, if Apple and Amazon and Google were still chasing anything close to a proprietary approach, then this wouldn't be successful.

It would still happen, it just would take a little bit longer. But the fact that they've said, “No, we're invested, this is the right thing to do,” gives other companies confidence and security that they can also do the same. They don't have to think about three different product plans for the same device.

Obviously there’s a ton of work in the implementation and the particulars, but even at the beginning, how do you sit down with all of these folks and say, “What do we want it to be?” What was the big beautiful future that Matter imagined?

It’s some of the basics of the smart home. This is what I love now about being able to explain this to friends who didn't really completely understand the black box that we operated before, but so many people have experienced those pains in smart homes: I got sold this really cool thermostat, but it doesn't talk to anything. And I've got these light bulbs, but only I can turn them on. And I like Siri, but my wife likes Alexa.

This whole notion of Matter was really, first, let's get everybody on the same level playing ground. Let's make sure that everybody can get any kind of device they want to, and it will talk to any other device. That is Matter. And that by itself is enough to take us a giant leap forward.

Let's make sure that everybody can get any kind of device they want to, and it will talk to any other device. That is Matter.

It really came down to a few different words. One is, it just works. Taking a lot of the complexity away from the consumer experience, and just letting them enjoy the value that's supposed to be getting delivered by that device or smart home. The stuff is happening in the background, and you're not having to be a network administrator.

Each of these companies have their own ways of describing it in the context of their consumer experiences that they're driving today, which is terrific. But getting that baseline is the most important part.

So ultimately, if you get this right, most people don't ever have to know that Matter is a thing or spend any time thinking about it, right? This is much more infrastructural rather than being a consumer-facing thing.

Eventually this should just fall into the background, because it should just work. In the near term, we have to be very present in the consumer’s mind, so they know what to look for. And that's one of the reasons why Matter’s a great term. The logo I love even better, because it's so elemental: It's like OK, just a quick glance, it’s got the three prongs, it's going to work with what I need to. It’s the way that we look at Wi-Fi now: You used to look for “Wi-Fi Certified”; now if you're in a place that has electricity, you just assume. We want to get to that point, but it's going to be a path and a journey there.

I spend a lot of time talking to tech companies that have very specific ideas about how things should work. And one of the beauties of being a developer is that you can just build the thing that you imagine, right? Part of what I would think would be challenging for you is getting to the point, especially with some of these larger companies that have effectively infinite resources, where they say no, it's better to build a thing that we all agree on, even if it's not quite the thing we think it could be.

It's passionate in the moment, right? And you want to have that, because you want to know what the possibilities are, and then you can test them. And you could say, that is awesome, you're right, that would be amazing. By the way, the resources to make that happen will be this amount of RAM, which no device has today. But you’re right, turn every window sensor into a server, maybe you could do this back flip, it’d be really cool. Or at the same time, I could make them all just really, really insecure, but the price point would be about 5 cents.

There's so many different competing pieces, and it's really important to have them all on the table when you're going through this. And then you're looking at what's on the table and saying, “Well, we know that we absolutely have to have commissioning done right. What are the core requirements for that? What's the basic CPU that I need for that to happen properly in the timeframe so that consumers aren't waiting for 12 seconds for something to happen?”

There are some amazing conversations that are fascinating from an intellectual perspective. But they always have to be market tested. And that's where organizations like ours are especially relevant, because we're market-based. So we’re bringing a standard to market, but it’s not just about letting it take as long as it needs to take to get to the perfect standard, and we'll publish a paper and let people figure out how to implement it. It can be contentious at times; it's one of the most important parts of the community that we have the ability to have these frank conversations, get these ideas out on the table, and then figure out what works.

That's why you have one company, one vote. As big as some of these companies are, at the end, they still only have one vote to cast.

One historical issue with a lot of standards like this is that they tend to make a lot of sense in the moment and then become outdated. And then the groups involved get frustrated that the standard isn't moving fast enough, so they bail and they go build their own thing, and we just start this cycle all over again. And so with something like this, especially in a space where the tech is changing so fast, how do you build something that is both what we need now, but also not going to be hopelessly outdated in five years?

You think about it in terms of a living and breathing thing. And I wouldn't say that it's not ever done, because it will be done. But it will always be adaptable and changeable according to what's needed.

How do you do that? You make sure that you have a wide ecosystem of companies that live on two- to 10-year product life cycles. The other part is you take an open-source approach, and you make this as available and transparent as possible. If you just think, “I'm going to address that market over there,” that's not going to be the recipe to be able to stay up with how technology evolves. And so this is a really important point that not everybody actually gets: The organization itself needs to stay engaged with industry in every facet, and especially in security and privacy, and how this touches energy efficiency and sustainability.

It's not just technology that will impact what happens with these devices. Policy will touch this, too. And so we need to make sure that as an organization, working with these companies developing and bringing the standard into the market, that we're tied into all the forces that will affect that. An open-source approach, as well as being tied into macro trends, is really important.

It's not just technology that will impact what happens with these devices. Policy will touch this, too.

So we have an open-source software development kit, which we've never done before. You can basically go and download that and play with that today, if you want. And we'll continue to evolve that. We're learning from our friends at the Linux Foundation and open-source communities and things like that, to make sure that we're adopting some of those best practices. And then also making sure that we're staying abreast of policy initiatives that may touch requirements around the devices themselves in terms of power output, use of radio spectrum, privacy and security settings that will be required and baseline for different regions.

Unifying all of this stuff in a way that makes sense is very much a technical problem, but also very much kind of a user interface problem, right? If this beautiful vision of a smart home that just makes sense is going to work, doesn’t that stuff have to come closer together, too?

It does. And that's an evolutionary piece: As the systems get built out, there's complexity in those systems, and that complexity is going to be done to a large degree on an individual basis by different companies. And there's a great value to them to be the first ones to do that. So as we look at just building that infrastructure, that plumbing that Matter will support, we're going to get into different routines, and then how those interface to different cloud platforms. As these networks grow, you're going to have different complexity that becomes an issue. And that will need to be standardized at a certain point.

In the near term, a lot of that, because that's more innovation, and a lot of companies are really thinking hard about this, there will come points where they say, “OK, this part needs to be standardized, but this part is really special, we can differentiate on it.” I think you'll see it in this organization, as we follow and track along the evolution of IoT, that a lot of that standardization to build that network will logically fall into our member community.

We don't anticipate ever being Alexa or Siri or anything like that, but in terms of common APIs and things like that, that we've talked about for years, we'll do that.

We actually hold a Leadership Series once a year — though we didn't do it this year, because of COVID — where we sit down with leaders from a lot of these companies and ask them to look three years out and five years out, so that we can kind of treat that as the industry R&D arm as we look at building out this network. We need to be thoughtful about how we're building the infrastructure, and then where more companies are just going to compete.

It's a super exciting time to be with this organization because we’re working with the companies that are defining that. And this has to be ethical, right? It has to end. And it's not just a work ethic. It’s moral and ethical in how we look at this. This has to be infused into every conversation we have about building this out, because this will touch every human on the planet, and Matter will be in every home on the planet.

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