Matter & Thread

Matter & Thread - What's all the hype?

You have probably been hearing a lot about Thread and Matter. But what are they? Are they the same thing? How will they integrate with HomeKit and our existing gear? Why is it better? Is it really going to solve all of our problems?

Matter and Thread are potentially going to be really great, and potentially significantly better than many of the options we have today. If it lives up to its potential it is going to increase reliability, speed, and ease of use. It is going to reduce the burden on our Wi-Fi networks, which were never designed for home automation's high device-count, chatty behavior, and desire of low latency performance. It should make product selection and availability easier and more plentiful.

What is Thread and What is Matter?

A lot of people confuse/combine/assume/forget that Thread and Matter are two different things. They also tend to oversimplify their relationship with HomeKit. Thread and Matter are not the same thing. Also Matter is not a smart home platform like Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa. Matter doesn’t automate or control your home; it simply provides the language for devices to communicate.

Thread

  • works at the Physical and Media Layer of the Networking Layer

  • it is a protocol that defines how a device's radio can connect to another device's radio to create a network that allows them to communicate with each other

  • think of Thread like you think of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi: it is the wireless medium of communication

Matter

  • works at the Application Layer

  • it is a standard for smart home automation, developers use Matter to implement smart home devices

  • think of Matter like you think of the HomeKit framework

What Makes Thread a Better Wireless Protocol?

Wi-Fi was never designed with home automation in mind, and it is a relatively complicated protocol to implement. It doesn't handle hundreds of connected devices very well (especially consumer networking access points and routers). It has high latency, which means that there is a longer delay between the time that you hit a button and a device responds. It is susceptible to interference. It requires lots of power, so doesn't lend itself to small, battery operated devices (like door locks, doorbells, and sensors).

Thread was designed from the start with home automation in mind. It is a simple protocol designed with low latency, requires very little power, and can automatically extend itself by creating its own mesh network. Thread was designed to work with hundreds of devices connected. It can also reroute the network traffic if a device is removed or unavailable. Think about why people love their Lutron light switches so much: they always work, they are reliable, and they are very responsive. This is because they are using their own proprietary radio network protocol that automatically creates an extendable mesh network with themselves. Thread is basically built like Lutron's radio protocol.

What Makes Matter a Better Home Application Framework?

Matter is an open standard for implementing home automation. This means that it will work with the home automation platforms from Apple, Google, and Amazon (assuming they all continue to support it, of course). So as a consumer, you can pick from any device that supports Matter, and it will run on any of the major platforms. As a manufacturer, instead of implementing, developing and supporting application developer frameworks from Apple, Google, and Amazon, they only have to build their devices to support Matter. This should make it easier to select a product, and make more products available for everybody (and should also lower costs).

HomeKit Compatibility and Existing Devices

Apple has stated that they will support Matter and that HomeKit will work with Matter devices. They have also stated that all of the existing HomeKit APIs automatically work with Matter-enabled accessories. This also means that existing HomeKit applications will work with Matter devices.

Matter can also support Bridges, allowing non-Matter devices to work with Matter devices. For example, Aqara and Hue have announced that they plan to provide an update to their bridges which will bring Matter compatibility to their devices. Of course these bridges also already work with HomeKit, so from HomeKit's perspective it isn't really an issue. But it does provide an avenue for a bridge that currently does not support HomeKit to work in HomeKit if the manufacturer upgrades it to work with Matter.

Other Things to Know

  • Matter will work on Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and Thread networks

  • Bluetooth can be used for adding new devices to your network (but not for control)

  • Local control for Matter devices is required. This implies that Matter devices can potentially be more secure, because they don't require access to the Internet. That being said, manufacturers can use Internet based connectivity to add additional features or services. Time will tell exactly what the details are in this area, but at least as a minimum, core functionality should not require exposing Matter devices to the Internet. This is very similar to HomeKit's current eco system.

  • There are three types of Thread Devices:

    • Thread Border Router: a Thread Border Router connects Thread devices to IP networks. An example of this is the HomePod mini and AppleTV 4K. This then allows a Thread device to communicate with a non-Thread device via Matter/HomeKit.

    • Thread Router: a Thread Router connects Thread devices to other Thread devices. They are what creates and extends the Thread mesh network. Since more power is required for a router, Thread Routers would typically be devices that are connected to power (like wired light switches, outlets, etc) and not battery-powered devices like sensors.

    • End Device: a Thread End Device connects to a Thread network but does not forward a signal or extend the network. They typically (but not always) need to conserve energy and run on battery power, like sensors.

  • Matter's Website: https://buildwithmatter.com (https://csa-iot.org/all-solutions/matter/)

  • Matter Git Hub: https://github.com/project-chip/connectedhomeip#readme

  • Thread's Website: https://www.threadgroup.org/

What We Don't Know

There are still many things that we don't know yet. A couple of the biggest questions are around certification and how deeply HomeKit will support Matter. For example, if a device is certified to work with Matter, does it also need to get a HomeKit certification? Currently neither Matter nor HomeKit support vacuums, but what happens if Matter supports vacuums before HomeKit does, or is that not going to be "allowed" to happen (Apple is a member of the Connectivity Standards Alliance, and has executives on its board of directors)?

When Will Matter and Thread be Here?

Matter has already been delayed a couple of times (and even had a name change - it was originally called CHIP Connected Home over IP). Right now Matter is expected to be finalized in the second half of 2022. That being said, the current HomeKit APIs already support Matter, and several devices already support Thread, including Apple's HomePod mini and AppleTV 4K, along with devices from Eve, NanoLeaf, Wemo, Eero, and Google Nest.

Will Matter and Thread Solve All Of Our Problems?

The short answer is no. Matter and Thread are still new and growing. There are going to growing pains, missteps and bugs. We will still be supporting legacy devices and networks. You will still have poorly implemented hardware and software. You will still be dealing with application interfaces that don't work the way you want them to. And at the end of the day, software developers still have to build the applications that mange the actual platforms.

Smart home ecosystems have several categories of devices, and not all of them are going to be supported by Matter on day one. The first release of Matter will support lighting, plugs, door locks, thermostats, shades, sensors, and garage doors. Future releases are expected to support home appliances, vacuums, and there is currently no (planned) support for cameras (although this is likely to come with future releases).

I have seen existing products get updated with Thread and respond more than three times as fast. I have also seen software updates completely break Thread and bring HomeKit to its knees.

That being said, Matter should make more devices available and compatible with each other, and possibly less expensive; and Thread should improve communication speed and reliability for controlling smart home devices and make managing our networks easier.

Summary:

  1. Thread is a wireless network transport, similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

  2. Matter is an application framework, like HomeKit.

  3. HomeKit can run on Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Thread networks.

  4. HomeKit APIs work with Matter and can control Matter devices.

  5. HomeKit Network Technology Pros and Cons:

    • Wi-Fi

      • has a very large range

      • requires considerably more power than Bluetooth or Thread

      • generally speaking, Wi-Fi is more expensive to manufacture

      • relatively speaking, Wi-Fi has high latency --in other words sending an "on" command to a device and seeing that device turn on would always be slower over Wi-Fi than a protocol designed for low latency, like Thread

      • Wi-Fi networks are harder to create and mange

      • not designed to keep hundreds of devices connected

    • Bluetooth

      • requires much less power than Wi-Fi

      • has a much more limited range

      • not designed for more than a handful of devices at once

    • Thread

      • require much less power than Wi-Fi

      • devices create a mesh network with themselves, thus extending its range, which is a major advantage over Bluetooth.

      • additionally, the mesh network is configured automatically and can automatically adjust to devices being added and removed.

      • Thread devices also have a lower latency when compared to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (low latency means that they respond very quickly to commands)

      • designed to handle hundreds of devices

  6. HomeKit Hubs

    • HomePods, HomePod minis, and AppleTVs can all act as hubs and can all extend Bluetooth, within their Bluetooth range.

    • HomePod minis and AppleTV 4Ks also support Thread, and so can help create and extend a Thread network and range.

  7. HomeKit Bridges

    • Bridges will continue to exist, both as HomeKit Bridges and Matter Bridges to connect legacy and proprietary devices to our chosen platforms