If you’ve integrated smart devices into your home or office, you’re delving into the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is just a group of devices that connect to each other and often to the internet to transfer data or perform specific actions. IoT gives you a system that’s easy for you to monitor and control from, say, your smartphone, or with voice commands to a system like Alexa or Google Assistant. 

The only catch is that IoT devices have to be compatible with each other and with your system. Imagine if, instead of worrying about compatibility for every smart device you purchase, you could know up front that they would be compatible with any of the major IoT systems and protocols. That’s what Matter does for you. 

Matter is an interoperability protocol for IoT devices, allowing them to communicate regardless of what system you’re using. The system can use many different connectivity protocols, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and something called Thread. While you’ve probably heard of the first two protocols, Thread is a bit more unfamiliar and complex. 

So what is Thread? And how does Thread work with Matter to enhance compatibility in IoT devices? 

What is Thread IoT? 

You probably have a home or office router that connects your computers and other devices to the internet. Think of a router as a sort of post office: It sends data ‘packets’ to specific addresses, just as a post office would send physical packages. In an IoT ecosystem, these addresses point to your IoT devices. 

If your router fails for any reason, so does your IoT ecosystem, just as supply lines fail if a delivery company would fail if all its routes were blocked. A single router means a single point-of-failure for all your devices.

Thread is a protocol that delivers internet access to your system, just like WiFi. Though one of the advantages of a Thread protocol is that it’s considerably more power-efficient. Devices can sleep when they’re not immediately necessary, and operate on relatively low power. Also, Thread solves the issue of a single point-of-failure by allowing certain devices to function as routers if one router fails. The result is a self-healing mesh network called a Thread network, which is a type of Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN). A “mesh network” is just a system of connected devices that can each connect to Wi-Fi rather than relying on just one router. A “personal area” means that only devices in a relatively small area can connect with each other. So a Thread network is simply a system for connecting IoT devices within a particular area. 

The Thread WPAN has a simple structure made up of routers and “End Devices” (EDs), which are your IoT devices, such as a smart appliance or your personal smartphone. Multiple EDs can connect to a single router, but not to more than one router. However, routers can connect to each other. 

The Thread network gives each ED a unique identifier. Think of it as being similar to an email address, though the actual structure is much more complex. Once the address is shared within the network, the routers can send messages back and forth between devices to allow the devices to communicate with each other. 

If an ED can’t reach a router in the Thread network, but it can reach an ED with the potential to become a router, then the second ED can upgrade to become a router and give the new device permission to join the network. Additionally, any ED can become a Border Router, which connects the Thread network to Wi-Fi or another internet protocol. This means the network isn’t dependent on a single router.

Another important feature of a Thread network is the concept of a partition. Suppose you work in a large “smart” office building with a strong IoT ecosystem. In one part of the building, you have your IT team, in another, your sales team. These systems may not need to connect directly with each other. If they did, you might accidentally make changes on the wrong part of the network or the wrong device, or an employee might gain access to something they shouldn’t have. That’s where partitions come in. A partition closes off part of a network and makes it distinct. 

Thread features powerful encryption and can accommodate several hundred devices. Thread is fast, so there’s little latency. Plus, you can use Thread for nearly any device or system.

What About Matter?

As we’ve said, Matter provides compatibility within an IoT ecosystem between different devices, applications, and systems. In some ways, working with current IoT systems is like finding the various cords to plug into a sound system. Some cords are compatible and some aren’t, so you have to get adapters to make them work. 

Right now, many devices rely on “gateways” or “hubs” as adapters to let different IoT apps and devices communicate. You often need more than one hub if you’re integrating multiple systems, like Alexa and Google Assistant, in the same workplace or home. By contrast, the Matter standard removes the need for multiple adapters by making sure IoT devices and systems are compatible from the outset. Matter relies on Thread, and just as countries declare a national language, Matter will declare an inter-application, inter-system and inter-protocol compatible language for IoT systems. 

So what exactly is the difference between Matter and Thread? Again, Thread in IoT is a network protocol that allows devices within a small area to communicate. It promotes compatibility at the network level. Matter is an interoperability protocol/standard that actually affects how IoT apps and networks are developed. It promotes compatibility at the network, application, and system levels.

In other words, if a device is “Matter certified,” then you’ll know it will integrate easily into your current system without any adapter. Matter ensures IoT tools will use a common language, no matter the vendor or type of tool. At least, that’s the plan. In reality, total compatibility is still at least a few months away from being fully realized

Matter is still under development by the Connectivity Standards Alliance. Still, many expect it to be an active standard by the end of this year, since it’s backed by a lot of big companies,  including Google, Amazon, and Apple. You may see lots of devices for sale that say ‘Matter certified’ in the near future. Now you’ll understand what that means for you. 

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