According to new research from the IoT analyst firm Berg Insight, the number of smart homes in Europe and North America was expected to have exceeded 105 million last year, with the most advanced market in North America, having an installed base of some 51.3 million smart homes. That means a penetration rate of 36 percent and an annual growth rate in 2021 of around 13 percent year-on-year.
By 2026, Berg Insight also estimates that about 74.6 million homes in North America will be smart, equal to 50 percent of all homes in the region. While the European market is still lagging behind the North American, in terms of market penetration, the installed base in Europe is set to reach about 100 million homes at the end of 2026, representing a market penetration of 42 percent and represents a pretty impressive rate of growth.
In this burgeoning market the most popular smart home products have tended to include smart thermostats, smart light bulbs, smart security cameras, smart door locks, smart plugs and smart speakers. Interactive home security systems have also emerged as one of the most common types of smart home systems, especially in the US.
Smart and connected home solutions are now becoming ubiquitous and in many product categories connectivity is a standard feature. However, a connected product does not automatically equal an intelligent solution that actually adds real value for homeowners.
“There is much left to work on for the participants in the smart home market before the true smart home is realised, in which products and systems from different vendors works seamlessly together and automatically make adjustments optimised for the individual user”, explained Martin Backman, a senior analyst who specialises in IoT applications for the smart homes and buildings, transportation and security markets.
According to Backman, developments on the software side will be critical in making this a reality. “The much-anticipated smart home standard Matter, which is planned to be launched during 2022, holds great potential to solve many of the issues that hampers adoption of smart home solutions today.”
“Making everything work together is the biggest challenge in making smart home devices mainstream – and it’s becoming simpler than it was before. Interoperability and the ability to take multiple devices from different manufacturers and get them to function together on the same system is the golden ticket for simplifying the consumer experience,” said Robbie Paul, director of IoT business development wireless for Digi-Key Electronics.
“In a fully automated smart home, there will be both products that are plugged in, like a light bulb, as well as battery operated products like a temperature sensor. Then as the home’s network expands from interior to exterior, there will be security cameras, irrigation systems, etc., where the range is expanded, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will start to fall short.”
Interoperability is critical
According to the design consultancy ByteSnap the benefits from IoT device development will only come by ensuring gadgets are interoperable.
“There is unprecedented interest in the Matter Standard, which is the new smart home interoperability standard being developed by Google, Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Comcast, GE and many other brands, to help devices work together in a single smart home ecosystem,” explained Dunstan Power, Director at ByteSnap Design.
“Research and innovation into wireless communication have resulted in the creation of networking protocols like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and Thread. Ideally, these standards should co-exist peacefully, however, they don’t. Although The Matter Standard has been delayed till later this year, it was created to address interoperability challenges.”
According to Power the Matter Standard offers considerable benefits.
“The first benefit is compatibility, where all devices are able to work together seamlessly. The smart home industry is ripe for a more harmonised ecosystem, which would bring together all networks that have been developed individually, making it easier for developers to create new products, reduce the time to market, and have consistency and usability benefits of being under one system for end users. That’s the purpose of the Matter Standard as it gives direct IP control for devices to speak straight to the internet.”
Matter is in layer 6 of the Open Systems Interconnection model (OSI), which sits on top of all the existing protocols such as Thread, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee, becoming the bridge between devices that have not yet been able to communicate with one another.
“It will make homes smarter, and also resonate in other IoT uses, such as energy, smart city, automotive, retail, industry, healthcare and buildings, where it will become much easier to connect and replace small ecosystems which can’t communicate with each other or the outside world,” adds Power.
The standard is supported by over 200 firms, so consequently, consumers can be sure that any certified Matter device will operate and communicate with any other Matter device.
Another advantage, according to Power, is that this interoperability between devices from different manufacturers will encourage more competition in the IoT space, as companies will no longer be locked into one specific ecosystem, such as Samsung’s SmartThings.
“The second benefit of the Matter standard is simplicity, whereby the consumer has control over the interaction. It’s also possible to bring products to market more quickly,” said Power.
One of the biggest problem for consumers in the smart home space is the number of different ecosystems they need to have, or the need to spend money and compromise on using one ecosystem, which may be missing features. They also need to ensure that the devices they buy have the correct protocol to be able to communicate with one another.
“Matter will benefit consumers because they will have confidence that the communications between all devices using the Matter standard will be reliable and secure,” according to Power.
According to Digi-Key’s Paul, “An overarching theme for smart home devices is simplicity – they’ve got to be simple to set up and simple to use, because ultimately people are using these devices for convenience, not an adventure in computer programming. If it’s more of a pain to set up, then they’re just not going to use it.”
So, a driving force from the beginning has been, how manufacturers can make the setup and use of these devices super simple and seamless to an individual’s lifestyle?
“As smart device manufacturers began building out their product lines to include more products to work together, they started bringing in smart home protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave to make their products proprietary. Smart home protocols are essentially the language that devices use to communicate with each other.
“Having all the devices speak the same “language” allowed for the devices to all communicate and offer far greater convenience. And if all the devices in the home can speak the same language and connect to a single “hub,” which connects to the home Wi-Fi, then that allows for the user to control all the devices from one single hub than with each device separately,” explained Paul.
However, problems have arisen for consumers when they have a smart garage door speaking one protocol and smart lightbulbs on a different system.
“All of a sudden, the homeowner has a suite of apps like Zigbee, Wemo, Smart Things, Ecobee, GE, Alexa and so much more to toggle between to control all their “smart” devices, and they’re back to square one of having to be a programmer or developer to get any convenience from the system. So, while the proprietary protocols were a good idea initially; ultimately, they complicate things for everyday consumers.”
Code writing dilemma
A dilemma for developers is writing the same code on top of protocols like Thread to communicate similar sorts of data. This is much the same as writing an audio data processing layer on top of BLE, instead of a protocol already existing in the BLE layer to do this.
Matter provides an SDK for developers to use a standardised way of communicating, on top of all the protocol layers that will be supported - such as Thread, Zigbee and Wi-Fi.
“After Matter comes into play, developers will be able to focus entirely on creating products without worrying about how to resolve any connectivity or interoperability issues in the design and development phase,” said Power.
The new standard isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel by replacing existing standards but builds on top of those to connect them together. Any Matter-certified end product will be plug and play. Devices that were not previously guaranteed communication in a different ecosystem will complement any smart home ecosystem using that standard.
Benefit for developers
The Matter standard will also simplify the developer experience by reducing functional specifics that could limit interoperability.
Most of the code base has been provided by Apple and Google, with Silicon Labs also contributing.
According to Power, “The standard is completely open source, improving security and reliability, as anybody can read and make changes to the source code.
“The standard provides a common layer for device life-cycle events, with an open-source approach using best-in-class contributions from market-tested smart home technologies. Developers can leverage those to drop-in code and development tools that are tested, validated and supported by members of the Alliance. This will deliver interoperability without any risks or issues in connectivity and communications.”
While companies will have to pay a certification fee to the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) to market their products as Matter compatible, it means that only devices which have been properly developed and tested will be out on the market.
Matter is still in its infancy, as can be seen by the 1.4k issues currently open in the GitHub repository, there is a lot of work still to do for any products with Matter to reach the market.
At their simplest, smart home hardware and devices have remained the same in a lot of ways but new advances in software have brought new intelligence, features and capabilities,” suggested Paul. “There will be a psychological hurdle that consumers will have to get used to of their homes doing these things automatically, but likely the convenience and helpfulness will outweigh the concerns. To remain relevant to consumers, companies are advancing security features to ensure users of these devices that their private information inside their homes is safe.”
Every day SMART devices are becoming more affordable, but they are still an investment, and consumers have to decide what is important to them.