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Nest and the Apple-ification of the thermostat

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Nest's Tony Fadell at GigaOM RoadMapThe Nest burst onto the tech scene in the last few weeks, making waves unheard of for a product you’d never guess anyone would care about: the home thermostat. But there’s a reason the device sold out in 72 hours: the creator, Tony Fadell, the father of the iPod, took a page from the design and usability gurus at Apple to create a good-looking, efficient and easy-to-use device. At GigaOM RoadMap on Thursday, Fadell talked about how he and his team are rethinking a 50-year-old industry with lessons from the king of consumer-friendly electronics.

Fadell looked at an industry that was badly in need of innovation. Not just in the technology under the covers, but in terms of usability and design. “Thermostats looked like PCs from the 90s: square,  beige, nothing innovative, and very expensive,” he said. So when he was contemplating home heating and cooling, he wasn’t inventing something new so much as rethinking and improving an established product — much like he did with the iPod in 2001.

Here’s how he consumerized an otherwise boring, staid product:

  • Make user interfaces as simple as possible. The Nest is styled like a dial. Fadell said this design was inspired by what you actually do with a thermostat. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you’re turning it up or down,” he said. Hence the dial and a single button.
  • Embrace proven technologies. The Nest is basically a smartphone on the inside, with the same computing power. It has two types of wireless connectivity, five sensors for temperature, humidity, light and two activity sensors to detect when people are in front of the device. And it has a removable — and therefore user-serviceable — battery.
  • Use technologies that will delight users. Fadell and team did something you wouldn’t be surprised to see from Apple with regard to how the device blends into its environment — something they call “chameleon design.” There’s a mirror inside with “a special edge that picks up incident light”, and through internal reflection it picks up the color of whatever’s around it. “So we didn’t have to make a specific color, we could just reflect back the color around it to make it blend in,” he said. It also uses sensors to passively learn about the owners of the home where Nest lives. It can learn about the heating and cooling patterns in your house, knows your activity, like how often you walk in front of it — and therefore how much time you spend at home — and can learn your patterns of how you like your temperatures. All of that means the thermostat can self-adjust its energy use to save money and resources.
  • Keep standards high. Of all of it, the most difficult thing was to handle this as a startup and not as a company with billions of dollars in the bank. And Fadell cautioned not to think cheaply or cut corners with the excuse that you’re just a startup. At Apple, he said, you have “a huge sandbox of technologies, capabilities and resources. You can’t go back [after that] to the startup way. You want to do it the best way possible.”

Photo by Pinar Ozger.

33 Responses to “Nest and the Apple-ification of the thermostat”

  1. Dylan MacDonald

    Well he doesn’t address one the gripes he has with 90s-era computers: expensive. Although programmable thermostats may suck, they are anywhere from a third to a fifth of the cost of the Nest. He’s got to do better than that.

  2. I am going to guess most of the negative commenters don’t have thermostat problems. In the 11 years since buying my house I have gone through 4 Thermostats trying to get one that “just works”. Switched out two models, needed a new type after switching to gas heat, and switched out once more. They cost between $79 and $249. Each “worked” but didn’t get all the way there. Variation in temp activation by up to 3 degrees each direction, trick to control activation delay, meaning the heat would come on for 5 min, then shut off for 5 then come on again. At the time with oil heat this repetitive startup sequence uses more oil each time. Did you know that to change some of these “installer only” features you need to punch codes into the thermostat first. Some of the codes are not listed in the user manuals. 3 of the four would lose all of their settings when changing the batteries in the thermostat, about every 18 months. I hope you wrote down that code, and remember which non-intuitively named code changed what.
    Yes, I have an older house, with some drafts, which I have spent $2,000+ minimizing with double-pane windows (keeping the wood trim, not slapping in
    Much cheaper vinyl replacements). So, in an ongoing search for a seamless home heating experience I am excited to try this option. I will of course keep the other Thermostat around in case it is not a winner, but my point is that there really IS a need for a smarter thermostat in the world.
    Disclaimer – I have earned my living for the past 20 years in the design and printing industry, and have worked and done tech work with Apple products 90% of that time. Those are the products used in my industry. I believe they are very powerful, robust products, with a different interface. Notice I do not absolutely state Windows is crappy or Macs are the best. I have huge issues with anyone making such absolutist statements, when often such products compare in a 55% vs 45% manner when looked at from a few feet back, and with actual experience with both. Why not be more realistic in your observations and opinions, rather than treating products like sports teams. ” For team to best the best, your’s must be the absolute worst. End of rant.

  3. Chad Armstrong

    Wow, a lot of negativity here…

    The Nest is moving in the right direction where I believe consumer-level products need to move. The only other thermostat that has caught my attention is the Ecobee, which also has mobile applications (iOS, Android) to work with the thermostat. I believe the Ecobee was originally selling around $450, but it appears to be selling in the mid $300 range now. Compare that to the Nest, selling at $250 — higher than most other thermostats, but lower than the Ecobee.

    • Holden McNeil

      I agree. We should all be encouraging innovation and looking for what’s next. Not shooting down sincere attempts to make changes or enrich lives. Don’t fear the new. Embrace it.

  4. Ryan Pfleghaar

    “Thermostats looked like PCs from the 90s: square, beige, nothing innovative, and very expensive,” Very expensive? Some of the more advanced thermostats go for just under $100. This Nest device is more than twice that. He’s very wrong to assume thermostats are expensive when this devices trumps them all.

    • David R. Greenberg

      There are no sub-$100 thermostats that interface with home automation systems and can be accessed remotely via a smartphone app. Most are over $200. Programmable doesn’t equal advanced.

  5. Why didn’t he just make an iTouch app? With a simple sensor module/relay attached to the 30pin port, you could have done the same thing. Cheaper, and with more graphics configurations?

  6. Huh? It’s a freakin’ thermostat! I want mine to be as invisible and un-noticeable as possible. Home (and business) mechanicals need to be as unobtrusive as possible. Don’t make it pretty, make it invisible. What’s next, a big shiny blinky gas meter in the living room?

    • David R. Greenberg

      Nobody wants a thermostat per se. They want to heat and cool your home while wasting as little energy as possible. The best thermostat is one that achieves this while blending into or accenting the decor. Seems liks this is exactly what Nest is aiming to achieve. The device itself has negative cost since it produces (or hopes to produce) significant energy savings over competing devices.

    • PT Sandiford

      Clever quip but I have watched intelligent people try to figure out modern “smart” thermostats and I welcome the innovation of the “Nest.” They didn’t invent the problem, they OBSERVED it.

  7. Hamranhansenhansen

    If you want to sell to consumers today, you have to learn this kind of design-centric thinking. Generation X has a Windows 95 view of technology — they are willing to pay you for the privilege of screwing around with a half-finished device, rebooting their Windows, diagnosing their Registry, blaming themselves for any problems they encounter rather than blaming the manufacturer. But Millenials have an iPod view of technology. They expect a device to be designed, finished, and to just work, and if it doesn’t, they blame the manufacturer, not themselves. They take the device back, or they don’t buy it in the first place.

  8. tim jones

    “Apple-ification of everything”? sounds like this is an arm of Apple’s PR department catering to Apple cultists. For most people, Apple is the epitome of overhyped, overpriced crappy trinkets.