Why matter should matter

Various Home Automation ecosystems

Home automation is one subject I find both fascinating and frustrating. One problem is that there seem to be two schools of thought: one which believes that users want to control lights and music to set the ambiance of their house, the other that wants to automate, their houses, typically for climate control or energy optimisation. I call the first the James Bond school and the other the Green Geek school. Note that these two visions are not at all incompatible, they just focus on very different outcomes.

How standards proliferate – situation there are 14 competing standards – ridiculous we need to develop one universal standard that covers everyone's use cases. Yeah! Soon 
situation there are 15 competing standards.
The other problem is that the ecosystem is extremely fragmented, where each manufacturer has its own ecosystem, typically with incompatible protocols, and a different device that acts as the orchestrator, it the thing that executes rules based on the state of sensors. To make things even more complicated, those ecosystems typically don’t interact with other relevant standards, say network management (SNMP), remote media streaming (DLNA) etc.

If you consider the home network in our house, I can identify the following clusters:

  • An Energybase module mounted in the electric panel. It can talk to the Fronius inverter. The energybase system is deprecated (yay!) and has a proprietary interface. It could talk to SG-ready modules (which we don’t have).
  • The Netatmo weather stations. which includes internal and external sensors. Temperature and CO2 measurements are exported to HomeKit natively.
  • A set of MyStrom buttons and switches, with one LED strips. The newer ones also act as temperature sensor. The switches and the strip are natively exported to HomeKit, along with their temperature.
  • A Xiaomi cleaning robot, a cat feeder, and one gateway that speaks Bluetooth and Zigbee.
  • A Tuya baby monitor and a switch, the switch is natively exported to HomeKit. The baby monitor has a temperature sensor and theoretically supports the Onvif protocol. They are managed by the Elesion app, which seems to be some German overlay for Tuya.
  • A V-Zug oven and dishwasher, which could integrate into the DigitalStrom ecosystem.
  • A Flashforge 3D printer, which has a camera.
  • A Apple TV device, which can act as a HomeKit orchestrator.
  • A HomeBridge instance that runs on my Synology NAS, which tries to map various systems into HomeKit.
  • A set of DLNA capable devices: Sony Playstation, Sony Bravia TV, Denon Home-Cinema, X-Box One.
  • A printer that supports the IPP and SNMP
  • A NAS that supports various protocols, including SNMP an Syslog.
  • A Swisscom router that used to be able to act as orchestrator.

Needless to say, this mess is not satisfactory. You might contend that standards like DLNA are separate from home-automation standards, but the truth is, they expose virtual buttons, there is no reason to not expose them along the ones that control the lights or the blinders. Same goes for SNMP, any gauge is basically a sensor. Turning on the light in a cabinet when the printer becomes active is a reasonable automation.

I’m clearly not the only one who realised that this prevents any serious uptake in home automation devices, so various manufacturers have agreed on a standard named Matter. The idea is pretty straightforward, having one protocol for all these devices. The protocol is based on IP, and the development kit is open-source. For devices that don’t have a Wifi interface, the Thread protocol allows to route IP6 over low-energy mesh networks. If these protocols are widely adopted, this would allow two things:

  • Have any orchestrator control any device
  • Have each mesh gateway route traffic to the internet

Both have a huge potential: having one unified protocols means they can all be controlled from one App, one assistant (for the James Bond crowd), it also allows to automation that spans all controls and sensors (for the Greek Geek crowd). Having each gateway route the traffic for all low energy devices means you have a hope of getting one solid mesh, instead of multiple weak ones.

These standards are pretty new – the spec was made final end of last year – and currently the set of devices that support it is small. What is interesting, is that beyond the big names (Apple, Google, Amazon), many hardware manufacturers like IKEA and Bosch as well as silicon manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon. Besides making the hardware more compatible, this would allow to build simple protocol gateways. Currently open-source systems like HomeBridge, HomeAssistant or OpenHab are big systems that include the orchestration and various plugins to talk to the plethora of devices. Eventually each plugin could become a simple server that exposes one protocol as a Matter Gateway. In reverse, this would allow to have a Matter controller that exposes its sensors, for instance as SNMP gauges.

Now the protocol is complex, and given the number of players, I expect the beginning to be chaotic. I just hope it eventually catches on.

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