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HomeKit roundtable: Jennifer Tuohy joins to discuss Matter and the smart home

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This week we sat down for a roundtable discussion with Jennifer Tuohy on HomeKit, Matter, and the smart home space as a whole.

Our interview originally aired as a segment on the latest episode of HomeKit Insider, our smart home podcast. It's been briefly edited for clarity.

Jennifer Tuohy is the resident smart home reported at The Verge. During our lengthy conversation, we explored the impending rollout of Matter and how it will coexist with HomeKit and other smart home platforms, connectivity options such as Thread and Bluetooth mesh, and much more.

Andrew O'Hara: Welcome Jennifer, thank you for joining us here today.

Jennifer Tuohy: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Stephen Robles: I don't know if you've followed our saga, but I'm building a new home, actually, and so I'm kind of deciding what smart home stuff to install.

I really wish the Wemo dimmer light switches with Thread would launch now. I'm going to have to buy my switches soon. But when it comes to locks, I wanted to get something with HomeKey, which the only one right now is Schlage. There's an Aqara one that isn't available in the U.S.

As far as discrete, you have a Level Lock. So I'm leaning that way. But Jennifer, if you are going to put a lock in a new home that had HomeKit, do you have a preference or what do you think you would do?

Jennifer: I do really like the Level. It's very much the sort of aesthetic I like. There are a couple of software things that I found annoying when I tested it.

It was a year or so ago, but last time I checked in with them, I asked them and they said "no, still works that way," which was when you leave the house, if you don't go far enough away when you come back, it won't auto-unlock because it's a security thing, but it's annoying.

Like you get into your car and go "oh, I forgot something." Now I can't get back in my house. It's just a minor thing and it's the software. It's something they could fix, but they look great. The touch to open feature, I thought worked really well. I did have a bit of trouble with them because I had an older door and it really has to line up perfectly to work. But in the new home, I wouldn't have any concerns about it. I would go for it.

And Level and Apple have worked together. I would not be surprised to see HomeKey come to them eventually. They have the NFC capability already in the locks, or at least in the Touch, right. Because you use the little cards, but you never want to buy something on the hope that it'll one day be compatible. Never buy hardware today with the promise of software tomorrow.

Andrew:

I think what I like about the Level Touch, with that problem you mentioned, Jennifer, where you walk away and it wouldn't auto-unlock. If you have the Level Touch version, you can just touch it and it will authenticate on the spot there.

So even though it didn't auto-unlock. It should still be quick to manually unlock just by touching it with your hand and authenticating through your phone.

Jennifer: I don't want to give false information, but I just remember finding it very frustrating because I often get into my car and remember, well, actually, my children remember what they've forgotten and they have to go back in.

But yeah, now that they've got the keypad, they have the trifecta or maybe even the four. You've got a keypad. You've got touch, you've got the key, and then the app. I think you've got to have all of those elements in a door lock these days, especially in a multi-user household.

It's different if you live alone or if there are just two of you. But children without iPhones are out of luck. Otherwise, it's great that they added that keypad because that was another thing that I thought was missing because it's so good to have that functionality.

And the whole concept of sending people keys over the phone just never really it's not really caught on. I mean, it works, but especially maybe you're a service person or cleaning person who has a different type of phone or who isn't very comfortable with technology. I found that to be less useful than just being able to give that a keypad if they have green bubbles.

Especially if they have to download an app.

Andrew: I know sometimes when I'm testing out these locks and we've got one on there for a month or so, I tell my wife "here I sent you access. You have to download another app." It's a whole thing if it doesn't work, versus just with HomeKit.

Someone will have to download the August app or the Level app or whatever other random apps to set up an account. If a guest is coming over and I don't want to give them access to my HomeKit home, I have to send it through that third-party app, which they have to download and make an account and do all that stuff. HomeKey is way easier. Or a passcode. Both of those are much better solutions.

Jennifer: Definitely, yeah. We have a different door lock on our front door every month, and my husband has just given up as long as I have the key.

Although I do like fingerprint (readers). I think fingerprint is great because I can grab his hand and go, "come on." I can't make him download an app. And it would be nice if the Level Touch actually had it in the next version. You have to have your phone with the Touch right now. So that doesn't work for kids.

Andrew: We just need Face ID for doors!

Stephen: Yes!

I have three kids, and a keypad with the lock is essential because they can unlock it. But we've talked about in the past couple of episodes, having physical controls for HomeKit devices makes a world of difference with kids. And I got that Wemo Stage controller recently, and it just makes all the difference when they can just press one button and trigger a scene as opposed to them trying to yell at Siri.

Do you have any controls, physical controls like that?

Jennifer: Yes, because we try multiple voice assistants in my house, and it confuses everyone. I found my children in a living room saying "hey, Siri," "hey, Alexa," "hey, Google."

My son has a little Hue button to turn the lights on and off. And then my daughter has one of the old Hue dimmer remotes that's supposed to be in the wall but just ends up somewhere in her bed. They both have smart shades, and I have remotes for those because even though the children use voice controls, voice still isn't quite there. In terms of speed, reliability, the nomenclature can still be difficult.

And I think there's something about younger voices, too. The way they announce it. Some of the speakers, smart assistants, don't always hear them correctly. We have nightly battles yelling at them, trying to get them to do things. The speakers are not for my children, but physical controls are still crucial.

Light switches were an amazing technological invention 90 years ago, but it's time that they got better. I just redid my kitchen and I installed all smart switches. I didn't go with smart bulbs, mainly because I wanted pretty light fixtures, and there aren't many out there that are smart.

So I went with Lutron.

Stephen: When it comes to reliability, I know my Lutron system was just second to none. I literally never had a single issue with the Lutron switches. And so that's why I've been debating in the new house. I wanted to go with the least amount of hubs as possible. But the Lutron is just so good, I feel like it might be worth it. But if there was Thread in those Wemo switches right now, it wouldn't be an issue.

But yeah, my five-year-old daughter, she cannot really get Siri to do anything she asks. And I think it's because the inflection or how she's talking. And so those physical controls, especially for young kids, is crucial. Makes all the difference, really. We recommend people try it for sure.

So let's talk about Matter. We've been hearing about it. There were examples out at CES that Andrew saw. Are you excited about Matter? Do you think it's coming this year for sure?

Jennifer: Exactly. Going on the record, I think there'll be a lot of people with egg on their faces if there isn't at least something this year. I feel like the momentum is there.

And we know from talking to people at the CSA, there's been a lot of testing. There are products that are ready to go. The big question still is certifications. And we're not really getting a lot of answers on any of that, especially if companies are still going to have to certify with all of the above and Matter, or if that's all going to go away, which was sort of the initial promise.

But that's going to be a big issue. And it kind of leads into my biggest thing about Matter, which is I'm slightly worried. I contribute to this with my articles, I'm sure, but I'm slightly worried that the consumer is a little bit too excited about Matter because really it's for the developers.

Ultimately, once Matter is here, if it does what it says it can do, the consumer shouldn't really even have to worry about it or know about it. All they need to know is about the little logo and that way it will work with everything.

But all the most important elements of Matter are really deeply nerdy and technical and it's a bit confusing for the average smart home buyer or the average home buyer who's just looking for this type of technology to put in their new home. The longer it goes on and the more we kind of are waiting and talking about it, it's getting more and more complicated, I think, for people to understand.

I know ultimately the CSA and the people behind it would love to have walked on stage and said, "here you go, it all works". But they need everyone on board. And whilst it has a very large group of people there are still a lot of outliers. There are still a lot of companies who haven't really committed.

It's hard to build or develop products for Matter without really knowing what it will look like. I was talking to the people behind the Brilliant smart switches — which would be obviously a great Matter connection to have — but they have the same issue.

We just don't know how we're going to be able to do this yet. There's kind of the haves and the haves not. Right now there are companies that are on the Matter train and sort of paid-up CSA members and are all involved. And then there's everyone else that's waiting to see, right?

To answer your question, I am excited and I do think it's coming. It should make everything work the way it is intended to, as opposed to everyone having to figure out hacks and figure out why their motion sensor is turning the lights on every 3 seconds.

I'm hoping that local connection will make everything more stable. Thread is exciting and we're already seeing the benefits of Thread. I'm having an awful time right now with my HomePod mini and my Nanoleaf devices every time I often turn the lights on.

Siri sort of sits there and says "some of your devices are taking longer to respond". It's terrible when that happens. I researched and apparently, my master hub was at the far corner of the house. So I went and unplugged it and since I did that, things have got better.

But this is what Matter will hopefully help with we shouldn't have to be troubleshooting our smart homes, just like we don't troubleshoot the electric grid when our regular lights stop working.

Stephen: I have one follow-up question. Now the whole ring products and everything. Amazon announced new light switches recently without promising support for Matter. And when it comes to cameras, Matter 1.0 doesn't support cameras anyway. We have to wait till later versions of Matter for camera support.

But I have a theory that when it comes to the Ring camera system, especially the doorbell, I just don't see Amazon letting those be used in other ecosystems because it's such a platform.

Lock-in has been the conversation from the green bubbles to whatever else. And so do you feel like Amazon is going to go all-in? I just don't think they're going to bring the Ring and let it be used in the Home app without you having to connect it to Amazon.

Jennifer: So Amazon is all in on Matter. They are super excited, and every time you talk to them, the developer side, they're really excited. But it seems to me they're most excited about getting other people to make things for Matter and to be the hub, to be the controller through their voice assistant speakers.

Ring and Blink and, well, Eero is separate than they are on the Matter band. But the other sort of smart home properties within Amazon. I've asked them directly about Matter because Ring and Blink are actually run by essentially the same people, and it's always "we're involved in conversations, but we have no announcement to make yet." So they're part of the conversation, and I think it's more wait and see for them.

I think honestly if Matter really does hit the ground running, I think the consumer pressure will be too hard for them not to sort of join in. But if things don't really go as well as they want, as Matter is intended to, perhaps they'll be able to skip it is what they're thinking.

But I'm just guessing from conversations, and it seems difficult because Ring has really come a long way since they first introduced the Ring alarm, like three or four years ago. I remember thinking, "wow, this little box actually has every radio in it that you could want to run your smart home." It's like an ideal smart home hub.

I remember asking them at the time and they said, "well, we want to wait and see how our customers react and how they like it. And then we might turn on some of these additional radios as we go down the line." And then they brought the Pro out, which is a really great concept. With the cellular backup for your Wi-Fi.

I feel like Ring is really working hard to be its own ecosystem. You can control so many different parts of your smart home through the Ring app. It's not a great experience, but it's there.

I wouldn't be surprised to see if the move Ring might make is to become a Matter controller eventually, because that's where I'm really interested in seeing which of the apps are going to kind of step up and be the main app you want to run your home through. Obviously, there's the big three, but there are others that could do it, too. And Ring is in a good spot for doing that.

But then they're owned by Amazon. So it's like, why would you do it? But they're separate. They're doing their own thing. And they love their — what do they call them? They're neighbors. They're all about making sure whatever their neighbors want, they're there for.

So if the neighbors are vocal enough about Matter, I think they'll get on board. But cameras are the important part, and no one's on board with cameras. So we can't really ding Ring.

The security sensor part, though, we can because security systems and sensors are part of the first rollout. Matter and Ring is nowhere to be found there, which is a shame.

Apple's been a bit silent on Matter too recently.

Andrew: The last time we heard was at Dub Dub last year, and they were like, "yes, we are fully going to support Matter". It will be through the Home app, and a beta version was released with iOS 15.

So Matter is in there now. People are testing it, they can use it. I think we'll hear more at WWDC this year where they can actually go and talk about how things are going to be. As you said, a lot of the details are nerdy and cater to developers.

Stephen and I have talked on the show, is HomeKit still going to require a separate certification? We've talked about how robust Apple's certification is. I've talked to so many manufacturers who say "we don't know," and that's a huge blank space.

Part of it goes back to the certification process. Apple's certification process for HomeKit is extremely robust. The security testing and yeah, it takes years. Brilliant I know struggled for a couple of years to get their HomeKit stuff to come through.

I think it's crazy how a lot of these companies are promising that they're going to get Matter certification this year in time for Matter's launch. How is that even possible that there's going to be all of these companies getting through a certification process for a standard that isn't even finalized yet?

They have to finish the standard, then they have to build the product to meet that standard, then they have to get them certified. And they think this is all going to happen so fast.

It gives me so many questions on what is that certification process? Is Apple going to require its own certification process for HomeKit? How long are their certifications going to take? And if they're that short, are they that diligent in what they're testing? How much can we trust things? It's a whole bunch of unknowns.

Jennifer: That's why I wanted to ask you what you thought about that, because do you think at some point it's feasible that Apple will allow just Matter certification for a product to join HomeKit, or do you think it's always going to want to have HomeKit and Matter?

Andrew: I think they would want to do both just to have their official stamp, kind of like a Made For HomeKit-type program and what they have now, but maybe rolled back a little bit.

I think Matter stuff could show in the Home app no matter what, But they may have some sort of alert on there that says "this product will work, but it is not certified for HomeKit" or something to that effect.

Jennifer: Something like that or just something like that silos Matter devices and then your real HomeKit stuff.

I spoke to Tony Fadell for my article on Matter, who was the founder of Nest, who worked at Apple, and that's what he sees. When Matter arrives, there's going to be a superior experience on certain platforms for those platforms and Matter.

But I'm really interested to see how that's going to pan out. I mean, does that mean that if you have just a Matter-enabled certified doorbell and a HomeKit doorbell, one is going to have fewer features or fewer integrations than the other?

If that's the case, that's sort of the antithesis of Matter.

Andrew: Yeah, doorbells or cameras, there's already a distinction within HomeKit. Some of these work with HomeKit and there are ones that work with HomeKit Secure Video.

And the ones that support HomeKit Secure Video, it's a much better experience than a regular camera. And then there are the ones that don't work with HomeKit. So adding the Matter level...

Jennifer: I think you're right. We're going to have levels. It's going to be layered. When I asked this question to a number of different developers and the platforms if everyone works with everyone, how are developers and products going to differentiate themselves?

Because right now, who you work with is a big selling point, and that, in theory, is going to go away. And the answer for most people was, well, the different platforms and manufacturers will be able to develop software that is more features above and beyond the base layer of Matter.

That's going to be the differentiating factor, more interesting features. That might be why you choose a Yale lock over a less expensive lock that just locks and unlocks. A Yale lock may do more in Matter.

So I think we're going to still end up with silos and delineations, unfortunately. Hopefully, they'll still be that base control level. That's what Matter is offering. And that's again, that goes back to my first point, why I'm a bit worried that people are a bit too excited about Matter.

I don't think it's going to solve everything in one go. But we'll see.

Andrew: I think light bulbs would make a lot of sense. You're going to have just Matter light bulbs that will show up and you can control it, change the color, change the brightness. But one that's certified with HomeKit on top of Matter, you'll have Adaptive Lighting and some of those additional features that aren't built into Matter.

Jennifer:It's a shame, though, because I think one of the things I would assume a lot of HomeKit users are excited about with Matter. The idea of more devices.

HomeKit of all the platforms is the least populated in the device front. And that is largely because of what you said before about the certifications. I said onerous. It's a difficult process. I had a developer tell me that he could have bought a Tesla on the amount of money he'd spent trying to develop for HomeKit.

So it's obviously not an easy thing to do. And the hope for HomeKit users, I would have thought, would be, well, now with Matter, does this mean suddenly there'll be hundreds more devices we can use?

Andrew: Okay, the last thing that I wanted to touch on was something that you had written around CES, and this was before we even knew that you were going to come to hang out with us today. But I can't stop thinking about it for some reason.

It's the Cync line, which used to be C by GE, which has now become Cync It specifically doesn't work with HomeKit. But your article at CES sounded very bullish on them. They're going to come out with this affordable smart home.

I know they announced support for Matter, but they're embracing Bluetooth mesh, which I don't think is even supported on the initial version of Matter. So I just wanted to know what you thought.

Jennifer: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say I'm bullish. I mean, they are going all out.

This goes back to my point earlier about different companies that might step forward to be central controllers for your smart home rather than just the big three. And I think Cync is very much positioning itself there because its app is probably one of the best parts of its experience.

It's a little flaky because of the Bluetooth mesh, but its app is actually developed by Savant because Savant owns them. And Savant is the high-end smart home company that has a lot of experience in that space.

And the company is bullishly moving into every category of the smart home. So that's sort of where that kind of bullish nature came from. Like they're really going for it.

To answer the Matter question, I did ask them and they said we're doing Matter over Bluetooth mesh. Like, no, you're not, because that doesn't exist.

Andrew: It's Thread.

Jennifer: I was talking to someone who I guess wasn't so much involved in the technical side, was more of marketing. And then they did get back to me after and clarified it's going to be over Wi-Fi because they do have Wi-Fi in there.

So they're going to add Matter over Wi-Fi. And then the other element that is interesting from them is they're bullish — I can't get rid of this word now. Thank you, Andrew. They are all-in on Bluetooth mesh because they feel like it's the best solution.

I disagree with them heartily, and I do test a lot of their products right now. I have one of their cameras and quite a few of their light bulbs. And like I said, their app is great. I do really like their app. It does take ages to connect to things because of the Bluetooth.

So I'm really hoping when Matter arrives, if they are able to adopt it in the way that will work, not Bluetooth mesh, then I'm hoping that their experience will get a lot stronger.

Their products are good. Their products are inexpensive. They have really interesting features. Their cameras have local storage. The light bulbs have really good color range. There's a lot of good pieces and parts there. It just hasn't quite all come together yet.

They've been through so many iterations. My very first smart home purchase was the GE Link light bulbs. This is probably why I have a soft spot for them. Do you remember those with Wink?

They were like the only smart bulbs that worked with Wink way back when. And all the lights in here were at one point GE Link bulbs, and I've watched their evolution over the years. They're an innovative company.

The switches are interesting, too. They have a great line of switches that work without neutral wires, which is up until Aqara, Lutron was really your only option if you didn't have neutral wiring in your home.

They're not very attractive switches, though, that's the downside. I do not like the look of the switches, and they did work with HomeKit at one point, and they keep saying they're going to do it again, but I would not put money on that.

The smart thermostat that they're coming out with is going to work with room sensors and is a really decent price, which is good. I think it was under $60, and they're kind of going for the complete home ecosystem.

Honestly, I think it's good to have competition in that space. I don't like seeing it all kind of going to one or to the big boys. Not that GE is a small little scrappy startup. And the Savant part to me is really interesting.

Some of the stuff they do in their app, have you paid with the app much?

Andrew: Not much. I mean, I've tested it, but not I don't use it regularly. Primarily focus on the HomeKit stuff.

Jennifer: When you turn your lights to a different color, it actually shows in the app. It shows us an image in the app. The image in your app will change to the color you choose.

I'm not explaining it well. It's not just the bulb. So you take a picture of your room, and then every time you adjust the light remotely, it will actually show your room adjusting at the same time. And you can kind of match colors in the app so that your whole space.

In Hue, you might go around and try and adjust every light bulb to exactly what you want and then set a scene. You can actually do all of that in the app in Cync, rather than having to go around your house and press a button and create the scene.

So it just has some really innovative features in there. I just think they're a good one to keep an eye on. And the price point is good because a lot of smart lighting that does those types of features is very expensive. We'll see. I would keep an eye on them, except that they don't work with HomeKit, so you're probably not interested.

Andrew: Well, I mean, some products will work with Matter, so we'll see if that all pans out.

But I mean, even their thermostat won't work with Matter. I don't know. Like you said there seems to be a little bit spread thin or all over the place. Only some products will support Matter.

They just announced a whole bunch of new products that for sure won't support Matter just because of how they're connecting with Cync — Bluetooth mesh.

So I don't know. I think it's interesting because it's GE and they're a big name and I feel like they should have a good presence in this. But I don't know. Cync just seems like it's spread out. They came out with a bunch of good features there, but I don't know how robust they are compared to some of the other ones.

I like that there are smart sensors on their thermostat. But again, they don't have HomeKit. The cameras for sure won't be doing Matter. So there are just weird holes there in the space.

Jennifer: They had a very robust lighting setup. It's one of the few companies you can buy switches, bulbs, motion sensors. You can get the whole shebang from them, but it will work on Bluetooth mesh. So that's the downside right now.

The other thing that's interesting about them and one of the reasons why I think it's important to keep covering them is they're very mainstream. They're in Home Depot, they're in Lowe's.

Andrew: I get Amazon Treasure Truck alerts that they've got Sync bulbs on sale.

Jennifer: And I see them a lot in the consumer's face. I think it is important to cover and point out when there are things that you don't want that isn't working well and things that are working well.

Like I said, it's important to me, I guess, to not get too tunnel vision when it comes to the smart home space to make sure we're kind of covering all the companies that are doing innovative things, even when they're not necessarily when there are problems because there are many most of the companies we cover come up with some kind of issue at some point that we need to point out.

But I've been covering the company for a long time and I feel like there's potential there and they are doing a lot of things right. The indoor camera is really good. I don't know if you've tried that. It has the privacy shutter, it has local storage, it sort of checks all the boxes.

Not everyone needs a 4K Arlo HomeKit compatible camera. There are a lot of uses out there for the sort of more inexpensive but works well and comes from a trusted company. I'd much rather people buy a nice indoor camera from Cync than buy some no-name brand of Amazon.

Stephen: Jennifer, thank you so much again for being here. Be sure to check her out on Twitter and read her articles on The Verge.