When it comes to the smart home, it’s fair to say that Apple’s in third place. A distant third place. Google (with its Nest products and Google Assistant) and Amazon (with its Echo products and Alexa assistant) are way out ahead of HomeKit and Siri in almost every way that matters. There are many more compatible devices, in more categories, at more price points. Many of them are more flexible, too.
While HomeKit and Apple’s Home app have a lot to recommend them, it’s challenging to build a smart home today if everything has to be HomeKit compatible, and much easier if you rely on Alexa or Google Assistant. Soon, that will start to change. The Home app in iOS 16 (and iPadOS 16, macOS Ventura, etc.) is getting more than a welcome facelift, there will also be a big change to the underlying architecture to improve performance and reliability.
And there’s more than that on the horizon. You may have heard of a couple of smart home buzzwords lately: Thread and Matter. Each tackle one of the greatest problems with smart home stuff today: interoperability. Since Apple’s in the back of the smart home pack largely because it’s having trouble getting enough devices to support HomeKit, they could each have a big impact on the future of the Apple-compatible smart home.
Here’s a quick primer on Thread and Matter, how they’re different, and how they’re going to benefit Apple’s smart home future.
Thread: Better smart home mesh networking
If you’ve been following smart home stuff for a while, you’ve no doubt heard of the Zigbee Z-Wave communications standard. You need some sort of Z-Wave hub, but then all your Z-Wave stuff just talks to each other in a seamless mesh network. Thread is very similar to Zigbee, as it is also based on the IEEE 802.15.4 networking standard in the 2.4GHz global frequency band, has a range around 20-30 meters in most cases, uses very little power, and has a low data rate. A key difference is that Thread is internet addressable: it sues the IPv6 protocol and TCP for communications. Thread is also self-healing (data gets re-routed if a device goes offline), lower latency, open, royalty-free, and more secure.
It’s also a much broader standard. Thread Group members include Apple, Google, Amazon, Qualcomm, NXP, Lutron, Samsung SmartThings, Siemens, Somfy, OSRAM, and Nordic Semiconductor.
It works like this: You have at least one Thread-enabled device that functions as a “border router” and connects to your home network. This isn’t necessarily a dedicated device–in most cases it will be something like a smart speaker or home streaming box. It might even be built into your router. Apple TV 4K and HomePod mini are both Thread border routers.
That border router in turn talks to other nearby Thread devices, which talk to others near them, and so on in an ad-hoc mesh network. Most of your devices, especially battery-powered ones, will be “end point” devices, meaning that they have no direct connection to your home Internet. They just relay messages to your other Thread devices and out through the border router.
Thread is a big deal. It’s a smart, zero-configuration way for smart home devices to talk to each other. It means you don’t have to have dozens of alarm system sensors, thermostats, blinds, plugs, bulbs, and other doodads and gizmos connected to your home Wi-Fi, or worry about them all being within range of your Wi-Fi router. The exception is video devices (cameras and streaming devices) and smart speakers. The bandwidth provided by Thread is quite limited. It’s plenty for control signals, but it’s not enough to carry video and audio. Those devices will still need Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections.
Thread is just now getting off the ground. Google has built Thread into its Nest products for a few years, and Apple’s got it in the latest Apple TV 4K and HomePod mini devices. But Thread-enabled devices are just starting to become commonplace. Some Eero, Wemo, and Eve products are available, as well as a few lesser-known brands, but we’re still quite a ways from a world in which nearly every smart home product supports Thread.
Matter: Different brands working natively together
Thread helps solve the networking problem of making devices all talk to each other, but it doesn’t make a device work with Apple’s Home app or Siri. For “ecosystem compatibility” there’s another important standard just now starting to emerge: Matter.
Matter is, hopefully, the bright future of smart home interoperability.
When you go to buy a smart home device today you see one or more “works with” badges on it. Works with Apple Home, Works with SmartThings, Works with Alexa, Works with Google Home… each badge telling you which smart home ecosystem that device supports. If the ecosystem you use is not on the box, you’re out of luck. As an Apple user, you may have noticed that the “Works with Apple Home” (it used to say “Works with Apple HomeKit”) badges are less common than the others.
This obviously a bad situation for users, but it’s bad for the whole smart home industry. Supporting several different protocols and standards and submitting products for multiple different certifications takes a lot of time and money. So several years ago, Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and others got together through the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) (which was previously called the Zigbee Alliance), to try to create a single standard that would allow one device to work across multiple ecosystems. The effort was called Project Connected Home over IP (Project CHIP), which eventually got released in 2022 as a standard called Matter.
Matter supports Thread, but also supports Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and Bluetooth LE, so it doesn’t require a Thread-enabled device. Basically, it’s a “one standard to rule them all” for smart home devices, a way to say “this device will work with Apple Home, Google Home, Alexa, and SmartThings.” It also requires that devices can be controlled locally, without connecting to the internet (except as required for functionality).
This is a huge win for everyone. Smart home device makers can build to a a single standard and get one certification to cover the whole market. The ecosystem companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Samsung) get a lot more devices that can play in their playground.
So what’s the catch? Well, there are two sticking points. First, Matter doesn’t support all common smart home device types yet. At launch, it will only support:
Security sensors (motion detectors and door/window sensors)
Wireless access points
Media streaming devices
That’s a sizable piece of the smart home market, but it leaves out several very important areas, such as: robotic vacuums, video cameras and doorbells, energy management (like solar and home batteries), and smart appliances. Given that several home security camera companies recently joined the CSA, it’s likely that we’ll see support for those in a future update, and other categories will probably be close behind.
Second, Matter really isn’t even out yet. The first Matter-certified consumer devices aren’t expected until late in 2022.
The good news is, a number of companies are updating existing devices to support Matter. Matter support is coming to existing Apple devices in a future update to iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and tvOS 16. That means the Home app will control Matter certified devices, and your HomePod mini or Apple TV 4K will serve as a home hub (and Thread border router!) for them.
Other products getting upgraded to support Matter include: Recent Amazon Echo products, several of the newer Eero Wi-Fi products, all Eve devices with Thread, a bunch of Google Nest products, the smart hub for Philips Hue smart lights, and Yale Assure smart locks (via a new plug-in module).
A great many other products will support Matter, but only as new products are released.
HomeKit is not going anywhere
So Thread is the way to have a bunch of different smart home brands in your house without worrying about having bunch of different controller hubs plugged in and without stressing about trying to make your Wi-Fi signal reaches every plug and light you’ve got. And Matter lets smart home devices work across multiple ecosystems. So HomeKit’s going away, right?
No, not at all. It’s likely that, over the next couple years, you’ll start to see more basic devices like lights, plugs, locks, and thermostats that have the Matter logo on them instead of Works with Apple Home (or others), and that’s a great thing. But Matter is just getting off the ground and, as previously mentioned, doesn’t yet support some important device types.
Video cameras is a big one. Apple’s HomeKit Secure Video does more than ensure that your cameras will show up in the Home app, it ensures that video is encrypted before it leaves your home network and is stored security on Apple’s cloud servers (where they can’t decode it). The issue of video encryption and cloud storage is a contentious one, and that’s an issue that will need to be solved before those devices join the Matter standard.
HomeKit supports other device types like water control (sprinklers, faucets), doorbells, and fans, that don’t appear to be in the Matter spec yet. Between the slow rollout of Matter and the need to fill in the gaps for smart home products that aren’t in the spec, we’ll have HomeKit and the “Works with Apple Home” badge with us for years to come. Still, Thread and Matter are a two-punch combo that should provide big relief for Apple users buying smart home products.