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Summary:

When tech patent lawsuits land in the middle of an industry they tend to make a loud, dull, thud sound. Nobody particularly likes them, both parties can often times end up looking bad, (or at least petty) and patent lawsuits are a guaranteed time and money-suck.

Honeywell & Opower's iPad smart thermostat app

Honeywell & Opower's iPad smart thermostat app

When tech patent lawsuits land in the middle of an industry they tend to make a loud, dull, thud sound. Nobody particularly likes them (other than maybe the media), both parties can often times end up looking bad, (or at least petty) and patent lawsuits are a guaranteed time and money-suck. But, in addition to all these moderate downfalls, when it comes to a newly emerging industry like smart, Internet-connected thermostats, tech patent lawsuits can also deliver some real harm by potentially hampering innovation.

Of course we’re talking about this week’s shocker: that thermostat giant Honeywell has filed a lawsuit alleging seven different patent infringements against learning thermostat startup Nest Labs. While we’ve solicited your survey results, and you’ve given some great comments on our posts, one thing seems clear to me that I wanted to expand on, and that’s that Honeywell’s patent lawsuit appears broad enough that it could potentially slow down innovation in this space. Here’s why:

  • Patents need to be non-obvious and inventive enough to be worthy of a patent. Some of the patents in the Honeywell case — like the natural language Q&A patent and the remote control patent — just seem to be so obvious that I’m not sure how defensible they are. As one of our commenters on this post put it: there’s only a few ways to do certain things, so sometimes the obvious way is obvious to multiple people and companies.
  • Major patent wars can be a damper on investment. Say, a promising young startup is building smart thermostat analytics, but they are looking to raise money next month, and all anyone is talking about around smart thermostats is this patent war. An investor could think twice about funding a company that a massive thermostat maker like Honeywell could set its sites on.
  • This is a truly David and Goliath scenario. Honeywell has a $47 billion market cap. Nest raised several tens of millions of dollars in venture funding and just launched its learning thermostat. Nest could really struggle if Honeywell pursues this case, even if Honeywell isn’t able to win.
  • The really large companies like Honeywell, but also GE and Johnson Controls, have been in this thermostat industry so long that they no doubt have researched a wide portfolio of things that they haven’t actually ever been able to commercialize. Honeywell said as much in its latest interview with me. But it’s unfortunate that instead of commercializing some of these products, these big companies will just crush them rather than see them come to market.
  • Go big or go home. This is one of the trends I noticed at the annual DistribuTECH event in January. This industry is maturing and companies have to grow to compete and survive. Particularly if there are patent lawsuits around.
  1. This thermostat was marketed in a market that is not customary for the HVAC trade. Most states require a liscense to do repair or do maintenance on hvac systems, to advertise to sell straight to consumer or have big box stores install these technical devices by-passing the normal channels realy steps on some toes. Our government through regulation and other control is making it very expensive to be in the hvac business or trade, any attempt to by pass this will be met with opposition. Honeywell has a large stake in thier own version of this thermostat that is sold almost exclusivly through hvac supply houses to hvac proffesionals for profesional installation.

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    1. Since Nest made the Apple version of the thermostat (amazing design) someone should make the Google/Android, cheap and open version. Set the thermostat free. Anyone?

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  2. Funny how the “stifle innovation” concept is never brought up when Apple sues companies. Also, there is no underdog story with Apple – they started suing after they were already quite big post iPod/iPhone successes.

    Laws/views/principles shouldn’t change depending on whether you (and other Silicon Valley ppl) like the company or not.

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    1. Took the words right out of my mouth…the patent portfolio wars seem to have gigantic political overtones to them.

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    2. Yeah agreed. Its a cliche and overused. But also unfortunately true, I think, too.

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  3. I remember when we were setting up the original Best Buy site you had to have all kinds of rules based on zip code because in some locals you couldn’t sell something as simple as a dryer exhaust hose (the big, white slinky type hoses) directly to a consumer, they had to be installed by a professional. — Crazy

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  4. @PXLated. Whoa. Now that’s a difficult market to innovate in.

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  5. “It’s unfortunate that instead of commercializing some of these products, these big companies will just crush them rather than see them come to market.”

    (1) If Nest really is infringing on someone else’s patents, Nest should expect a response.

    (2) Isn’t Honeywell introducing a modern thermostat? That would mean they’re innovating in the thermostat industry, rather than hampering innovation.

    (BTW I have no commercial interest in any company.)

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  6. Nest could have tried to license these technologies from Honeywell. How are other companies making thermostats?

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