Can Matter fix manufacturers’ commodification worries?
The news that Belkin is pausing its promised Wemo Matter products illustrates an underlying tension in the new smart home standard: the conflict between developing for the greater good and keeping all your eggs in your own basket.
Matter is a connectivity standard that lets smart home devices talk to each other directly, locally, and securely across any platform. It re-engineers the foundations of the smart home and levels the playing field for manufacturers. Instead of spending time and money making their devices work with multiple platforms, companies can put those resources into creating innovative features — who you work with is no longer as important as what you can do.
Before the smart home, who paid attention to what brand their light switch was?
This puts Belkin, like many other smart home companies, between a rock and a hard place. Its Wemo smart switches and smart plugs are relatively basic for a smart device, and with Matter, basic switches and plugs will become cheap and ubiquitous. Wemo’s main selling point in recent years has been Apple Home compatibility, where it had relatively few competitors. But thanks to Matter, anyone can work with Apple Home. Without differentiating features, Belkin’s devices become commodities.
Or course, commodification is not necessarily a death knell, just a shift of business model to cheap and utilitarian. After all, before the smart home, who paid attention to what brand their light switch was? With universal compatibility, the hope is more people will buy smart home devices, and there will be a bigger pool to play in.
Matter’s initial feature set is basic for this reason. For the large number of people without a smart home today — the people Matter is trying to attract — basic functionality is fine. In fact, it’s a selling point. Turning their lights on and off with their voice, dimming them with a smart switch, and maybe changing the color is likely all they will do.
Smart home nerds and enthusiasts are the ones who want precision motion sensing, adaptive lighting, and other whizz-bang features. For everyone else, the goal is simple smart home control that just works, like your plumbing (hopefully). And that’s what Matter is: a baseline level of local cross-platform control, a foundation that can be built on.
But most smart home companies — including Belkin! — don’t want to build interchangeable commodities to support this baseline. They don’t just want to make the pipes. They want to stand out. One way to do that is with unique features. “We believe that commoditization is the result of lack of innovation, not standardization,” Kelly Gramuglia of Signify, owners of smart lighting companies Philips Hue and Wiz, told me. Both of its companies have committed to supporting Matter. I contacted several manufacturers after the news broke to get their take on Belkin’s move, and the feedback was largely the same.
Companies now need to make better products, and Belkin knows that. It can’t coast on being one of the few devices that work with Apple Home anymore. The competition will be in that layer above the plumbing, the innovative hardware and software features that make the smart home more than just remote control: the rain head shower and the fancy kitchen faucet, to drown the metaphor.
However, unlike other competitors who hitched their bandwagon to Apple’s star, Belkin ditched its app somewhere along the way — its current devices work with the Apple Home app only. It has no extra features to offer above the basics that any smart switch or video doorbell that works in Apple Home can.
This is now a problem for Belkin. In the connected home, features are one way to stand out from the crowd. Lighting company Nanoleaf has announced new motion-sensing light switches that will learn your habits and adapt automatically. Smart switch maker Leviton has built out an ecosystem of connected electrical products that work together to help with home energy management — from light switches to smart breakers and smart electric vehicle chargers. Wiz has developed SpaceSense, a motion-sensing feature that uses Wi-Fi fluctuations rather than physical sensors to turn its smart bulbs on.
Manufacturers and platforms have every incentive to keep their innovative features limited to their devices
The common thread here is that while these companies have all committed to supporting Matter, these innovations exist outside of the Matter spec and, as such, require a separate app to manage them. Belkin doesn’t have an app anymore. So it’s back to the drawing board. It’s important to note that Belkin’s statement didn’t say it would never make Matter products but that it would bring new Matter products to market when it can find a way to differentiate them.
This is the tension inherent in Matter. It promised a single unifying standard that makes the smart home just work. And with Matter, companies (and customers) can focus on product design and features rather than worry about basic platform compatibility. But manufacturers and platforms have every incentive to keep their innovative features limited to their devices or, at best, partnerships with one or two platforms.
“When you become a Matter device, you hand off control. That’s where commoditization happens really quickly,” Nanoleaf CEO Gimmy Chu told me. “If every innovative feature you put onto your product, especially a light source, is handed over to a platform player, then all of a sudden, you don’t own that aspect of the innovation.” Chu’s proposed solution is that Matter controllers deploy manufacturer-specific features. But that would be up to each platform to deploy, and means manufacturers are again developing for specific platforms.
“When you become a Matter device, you hand off control. That’s where commoditization happens really quickly.”
Signify’s Gramuglia pointed out that building on top of Matter is already possible “either with manufacturer extensions within Matter APIs or additional APIs to Matter.” And the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) has said that Matter will get more feature upgrades as its members agree to areas where standardization is applicable. Translation: no one wants to give away any more control than absolutely necessary to make this work. Beyond that, we’re all quite happy in our walled gardens, thank you very much.
Rock, meet hard place. And just like hardware manufacturers fear commodification, so should platforms. While Matter is designed to make it easy to use any platform, it’s also designed to make it easy to switch to any platform. If you’d rather have Apple’s Adaptive Lighting than SmartThings’ robust energy management features, you can take your devices right over (or run both platforms and get both features).
This means the platforms need to innovate and create better, more useful, and — as every platform company likes to say — more delightful experiences. Right now, these platforms have differentiating features, including Apple with its Adaptive Lighting and HomeKit Secure Video, Amazon with its Hunches features, and SmartThings with its home energy management platform. But to fulfill the promise of Matter, they need to make those features accessible to any Matter device.
Matter devices can’t be second-class citizens in a platform’s ecosystem
As it stands, Nanoleaf’s new Matter-compatible light bulbs won’t work with Apple’s Adaptive Lighting (despite previous versions of the product being compatible) because Apple hasn’t opened the feature to Matter devices. It could do so, and it should. Matter devices can’t be second-class citizens in a platform’s ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the current situation is that most of the “delightful” experiences are going to come through manufacturers’ apps. “Brands like Cync can still differentiate on their unique features and capabilities using their own app,” Patrick Miltner of GE Lighting told me. “On the software end, a light bulb that supports light shows and music syncing will inherently be able to do more within the manufacturer’s app since those capabilities aren’t in the Matter spec.”
While this is all fine for manufacturers, it undercuts a key promise of Matter: all your devices will just work together. But I don’t want all my smart light bulbs to just turn on and off together. I can do that with my dumb light switch today. As a card-carrying smart home nerd, I want all my lights to work together to automatically shift color temperature throughout the day, no matter who made them. That’s the future Matter promised. And that’s what it needs to deliver.
Ultimately, Belkin’s move is a wake-up call for companies taking a wait-and-see approach to Matter. It will become the primary, open connectivity standard for the smart home moving forward, just as Bluetooth is for earbuds and Wi-Fi for laptops. Companies that don’t get on board face irrelevancy. Like the wired Apple headphones you no longer get in every iPhone box, the old, proprietary ways will eventually die. It may be a long, slow, and painful death, but at this point, it’s inevitable.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge