Importantly, the upcoming standard attempts to provide a unified language for the smart home, and it’s almost here – I’m just seeing it as an early demonstration of the cross-platform compatibility it should enable in the future. The demo is courtesy of Eve, a company that makes a range of smart plugs, radiator valves, lighting and safety equipment.
Historically, Eve has only used Apple’s HomeKit smart home platform. That’s because it doesn’t want to use a cloud-to-cloud platform, preferring to keep its devices on a locally controlled platform for privacy and security. Eve has an iOS app, but no Android app, and it doesn’t support Samsung’s SmartThings, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google Home. So when I approached Eve’s booth at the IFA trade show in Berlin, it was notable to see all four platforms on display.
The reason for the transformation is matter. This may be the most important thing to happen to the smart home since its inception, and we’re theoretically only a few months away from being publicly available. Eve has also announced an Android app as a counterpart to its existing iOS app, but the great thing about Matter is that technically you don’t need the device manufacturer’s app at all. You can set up and control Matter-enabled devices using existing apps, whether it’s Apple HomeKit, Google Home, Amazon Alexa, or the Samsung SmartThings app.
That’s exactly what Eve showed at IFA. The Matter specification hasn’t been finalized, so no device is running its final Matter-enabled firmware, but it’s enough to see the various features we might be able to expect when Eve’s devices are updated to support it.
There’s a fourth-generation Echo speaker on Amazon’s desk, along with a typical non-smart light bulb that plugs into an Eve Energy smart plug. Currently, Echo speakers can’t control Eve products because they don’t support Alexa. But both products are compatible with Thread, one of the wireless protocols that Matter works on and can run locally. Eve shows how Matter will enable these two previously incompatible devices to talk to each other.
Eve’s booth rep was pretty adamant that no one but them used voice commands to control each of their smart plugs, so I relied on them to issue commands that could control Eve’s devices. “Alexa, turn off my Eve Energy,” a representative asked the fourth-generation Amazon Echo. After a (certainly long) beat, the lightbulb plugged into the Eve Energy smart plug clicked off.
Matter is designed to enable users across platforms to easily and seamlessly control the same smart home products locally. The result is a more cohesive experience where any voice assistant you choose to use can control all of your Matter-enabled devices, and configuration changes made to devices through an ecosystem are automatically reflected everywhere else. Each of the four demo stations uses the same model of Eve Energy smart plugs, eliminating the need for separate models for different ecosystems. Because the accessory already supports Thread, updating it to support Matter was a relatively seamless process, Lars Felber, Eve’s PR director, told me.
On Google Desktop, there’s both a second-generation Nest Hub that supports Thread, and a Google Pixel 6 Pro running the Google Home app. First, Felber told the Nest Hub, “Ok Google, turn on my lights.” The moment the Google smart display recognized the command, the Eve Energy smart plug behind it clicked on the connected bulb. Thanks to Matter, the smart display has sent a signal to the smart plug via Thread to turn it on.
In my demo, using an Android phone running the Google Home app wasn’t smooth. “Phones don’t support threads,” Filber explained to me. So the phone needs to communicate with the Nest Hub over the local Wi-Fi network in order for the smart display to send commands to the smart plug via Thread. Unfortunately, trying to control the smart plug directly from your phone didn’t work. The icons on the phone responded to my taps, but the lights stayed the same.
It’s a shame not to see Matter working perfectly, but the trade show floor is certainly one of the worst places to showcase this kind of technology. Feilber told me that in the trade show floor where we were, there were about 50 overlapping Wi-Fi networks, and there were still nine devices on even the least crowded Wi-Fi channel. The Thread protocol also uses the same 2.4Ghz frequency as Wi-Fi, causing more interference. The amount of noise also makes it difficult to issue voice commands without yelling at the various smart speakers in the stand. Also, the Matter standard is not yet final – so there may be some bugs.
The third table shows Matter’s integration with SmartThings. Confusingly, there’s only one Samsung phone (Galaxy S22) on this table, and no Thread border routers are in sight. But Feilber confirmed to me that the company is using a SmartThings Hub made by Aeotec (hidden inside the table for some reason) to transmit the signal to Eve Energy. Although totally misleading, the demo works well. Controlling a smart plug with the SmartThings app feels instantaneous.
Finally there’s Apple’s desk, which is the most surprising of the four as it showcases a hardware setup already well supported by the HomeKit-exclusive Eve line – albeit now updated to use Matter instead of just Apple’s HomeKit. Next to the smart plugs and light bulbs on the table are the iPhone 13 and the HomePod Mini smart speaker that acts as a Thread border router. Controlling the smart plug through either one is very responsive.
While the introduction of the Matter standard means Eve’s devices will gain more functionality, existing users will benefit without having to buy new hardware. Felber said Eve plans to do OTA updates to all of its Thread-enabled products (14 of its 18 strong product lineup) to use Matter. The Eve Energy will appear first, with other devices like the Eve Door & Window, Eve Weather, Eve Motion, and Eve Thermo to follow, hopefully by the end of the year.
Turning a light bulb on and off is an easy smart home party trick, and there are many other examples of smart devices that work in different ecosystems. But seeing the current Apple-exclusive accessories (relatively) work seamlessly across all of these different ecosystems, including voice and app control, I’m pretty excited about what Matter might achieve when it launches this fall.
Jon Potter/The Verge Photography