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The details behind the Honeywell, Nest lawsuit

On Monday morning, thermostat giant Honeywell surprised the world by slapping startup Nest, and retailer Best Buy, with a lawsuit over patent infringement for smart thermostat technology. According to the lawsuit document, Honeywell says that “Honeywell — not Nest Labs — is responsible for many of the ideas that Nest Labs touts as revolutionary, and that many features of the Nest Thermostat infringe Honeywell patents.”

Nest sent me its official response this morning which is: “We have not yet reviewed the actual filing, which we learned about this morning through Honeywell’s press release. We will provide comment once we’ve had the opportunity to review it.”

So what technology is Honeywell talking about specifically? Oh, only the some key features of the Nest device including the outer controlling ring dial, the interview questions to start programming the thermostat, tech around being able to control the thermostat via the Internet, the Nest “Time to Temperature” function, and the way that the Nest thermostat diverts small amounts of power from the house’s electrical load to power itself. Here’s the details:

Natural Language Installer Setup for Controller (504): This is essentially the set of questions that programmable thermostats can ask the owner, like “What temperature do you like when the heat is on?” and “What time do you get up in the morning?” and “What time do you go to sleep at night.” Honeywell says it already offers this type of question set for its Prestige 2.0 smart thermostat line and it owns a patent for this.

Controller Interface with Dynamic Schedule Display (948): This pertains to interface features that make it easier to operate a thermostat and reduce energy like Nest’s “time to temperature” function. The time to temperature function displays how long it will take for the room to heat up or cool down to the desired temperature, so that the user isn’t tempted to set the thermostat too high or low to speed up the time to comfort.

Profile Based Method for Deriving a Temperature Setpoint Using a Delta Based on Cross Indexing a Received Price Point Level Signal (958): This patent includes methods for reducing energy costs by controlling a thermostat with information stored in a remote location. This is essentially about controlling a thermostat remotely through the Internet. This seems like a broad one, so I’ll leave it to the legal buffs to make a call on it.

HVAC Controller (899): Honeywell says it has a patent for technology around the rotatable ring that is used to control the Nest thermostat. That’s Nests highlighted main design point: it’s Nest ring.

Thermostat with mechanical user interface (789) and Thermostat with Offset Drive (790): These ones discuss placing a non-rotating part near or inside a rotating part, while still enabling the rotating part to control the function. Essentially this is another patent that says the Nest Ring violates Honeywell’s IP.

Power Stealing Control Devices (988): This patent covers the way that the Nest thermostat powers itself by “diverting or skimming” small amounts of charge from the heating and cooling power load. This includes a switch and a circuit to divert power from the home’s electrical system to the thermostat.

And finally, while this isn’t a Honeywell patent, Honeywell includes an image of a Kohler temperature controller for the Mira Platinum Wireless Shower product, which it points out looks “strikingly similar” to the Nest design:

43 Responses to “The details behind the Honeywell, Nest lawsuit”

  1. Free enterprise

    Here’s hoping Nest wins a huge settlement for wrongful lawsuit and ends up owning Honeywell. We would finally have a whole host of decently design functional products from the dinosaur and Nest would have capacity to catch up on thier backlog of orders!! Fantastic product, we preordered and replaced our Honeywell programable eyesore!. : )

  2. Gurmeet Singh Matharu

    This is just another example of a “Giant” trying to crush any type of competition and innovation. Maybe Honeywell shouldn’t have sat on its lazy ass for so many years and produced products that were nothing but lacking innovation and were aesthetically crap…

  3. Well it just so happens that I’ve having my furnace replaced and last night the guy is explaining that all the new furnaces have a self learning feature very similar to the Nest. Apparently after a few days of the set back thermostat kicking up at 6:30AM, the furnace will decide on it’s own to go in to low stage heating at 6:15. I’ll have to see just how this works out, but I wonder if York, Trane and the rest are paying licensing to Honeywell. I’ll have a good read though the manuals tonight after it’s installed and see if there’s mention of Honeywell’s supposed IP.

  4. Ian Ashdown

    Having spent five years of my engineering career as the reluctant technical lead in a patent infringement lawsuit in the solid-state lighting industry (Color Kinetics vs TIR Systems), I will offer the following observations:

    1. Patents are a business tool. Full stop. It typically costs $50,000 to $250,000 (depending on the jurisdiction) to obtain a patent. The ROI for the assignee consists of either licensing the patent or preventing a competitor from using the technology.

    2. Once a patent holder becomes aware of potential infringement, it has a limited time in which to assert its rights. As a duty to its shareholders, Honeywell has an obligation to protect its investment in intellectual property.

    3. Once a patent has been allowed, it is assumed to be valid until proven otherwise in a court of law. No matter how obvious the patent claims may appear to be to lay people, it is a matter for the legal system to determine their validity.

    4. It will cost Nest and Honeywell some $10 to $20 million in legal fees apiece to take their dispute to court. This is a minimum estimate; there is no limit on how much such a dispute can cost.

    5. Speaking strictly as a lay person, none of the above should be construed as legal advice. However, speaking as an engineer, I can say this: patent infringement lawsuits have the ability to foster as well as stifle innovation.

    I will offer TIR Systems as an example. When the company was accused of patent infringement, it has zero patents in its intellectual property portfolio and no thought of pursuing any. At the completion of the lawsuit (which was terminated when Philips Lighting bought both companies), TIR Systems had a patent portfolio which was valued at (and purchased for) an estimated $60 million.

    Nest likely has several options, including licensing Honeywell’s technology or battling it out in court. Whatever course of action they choose, they are well advised to continue innovating and applying for their own patents. This is after all the original purpose of the patent system — to foster innovation.

  5. Jesse Guerrero

    This is ridiculous, the nest isn’t an “idea” or a “sketch” its an actual product that is fully functional and beautifully executed. These are the death throughs of archaic business…

  6. michaelB

    if it had all the innovation how come Honeywell hasn’t leveraged any of that & instead been pushing brain dead 1960s technology? If its claims are true Honeywell shareholders should sue the company for derelict of duty & incompetence.

  7. Sevenfeet

    Full disclosure…I’m a recent Nest customer so I look at this with more than passing interest. And I’m certainly not a lawyer. Katie, in reading your article with the exhibit points, the first thing I think of in defending Nest is patent invalidation…either through prior art or an idea so broad or already widely in used and not enforced.

    For example, #904 which talks about a natural language interface. Really? Something like this has been in technology for many years. My Tivo sets up like this. Many car infortainment systems do too. All smartphones have a setup like this. It’s way too broad to enforce.

    #948 which speaks about a dynamic display with the controller interface is also pretty broad. They may have just meant dealing with a temperature time function but that’s not how it reads. And if that indeed is the meat of the patent, I sure would have liked that feature on the Honeywell programmable remote I replaced for the Nest.

    #958 (Controlling a device over the Internet) is laughable. Basically they now own a lot of the concept of cloud computing (which itself isn’t a new thing). I’m sure that will go over real well in court.

    #899 is the controller ring. Really Honeywell? That one is on the original Honeywell round thermostat that you still sell. Too bad you invented that in 1953….that patent expired decades ago. You can’t re-patent it now. The same goes with #789 and #790, which can be pretty much said are invalidated as prior art by the original Honeywell Round.

    $988 is the “Power Stealing Device” patent. It’s pretty clever to have the Nest use trickle power from the HVAC circuit to recharge itself. Too bad for Honeywell that the home alarm keypad sitting in my house pretty much does the same thing (and there have been millions of these things made for years). I’m pretty sure there are other examples. If you wanted to go further, you could say that any chargeable device like an iPod would run afoul of this one (charging while playing).

    Lastly, they throw in the Mira controller for their electronic shower temp control. From a legal standpoint, this is a red herring….Mira isn’t a party to the lawsuit and isn’t suing Nest. On the surface, Nest looks like they must have had this device somewhere in the development process. The problem is when you go to Mira’s website and look at the other pictures. The Mira and the Nest are both round with center displays with black backgrounds and a chrome ring. The problem is that the chrome part of the Mira doesn’t turn at all (check the side view pictures). The Mira’s interface are three buttons on the face: one for temp up, one for temp down and the last for power. As a controller, the Mira and Nest have nothing in common outside of looking like each other on first glance. Their UIs are totally different.

    Speaking of UIs, the Nest takes advantage of the fact that humans do well with round user interfaces. In cars we migrated to steering wheels and away from tillers 100 years ago. Most car speedometers have always been round. And the Honeywell Round thermostats was incredible popular in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s because it was a classic round design that anyone could operate and understand. Ironically, Honeywell themselves seems to have forgotten that with their recent attempts at designing smart thermostats. They had the technology and design logic in house all along and never acted on it. Moving to lawyers now is just plain sad.

  8. madsin32

    Another case of the Big Guy putting the smack down on the disruptive upstart little guy, and using ridiculously generic design patents to do it. Honeywell is being a patent troll in this case since they ditched the idea 20 years ago and, in their own words, have no intention of pursuing the idea.

  9. This really sounds like a FRAND thing, similar to the cellphone patent wars. There are only so many ways to accomplish something like turning on and off a heating unit. Omron and others have been making heating unit controllers for years. The basic technology is everywhere. It’s the implementation that matters. I’ve been stymied by patent trolls a few times. They haven’t developed it into anything, but if I or the company I’m working for wants to do something with an idea that’s occurred to me, we have to deal with these folks.

  10. I have been in the commercial heating & cooling business my whole adult life as was my father. There’s is no thermostat like this I can buy. I was excited to try it. Honeywell is much like Microsoft. Slow to do anything different and when they do it usually makes the product worse.

    • Maybe they can suck it up in the court room like everyone else does. Nest came to the market with plenty of brains and money behind them, they had to have done patent searches. They had to know something like this would be happening, sooner than later. Sorry, there should be no mercy here. If they lose in court then they will be paying licensing fees. Maybe that was already built into the $250 price tag.

      It’s a cool product with a huge price. If they didn’t spend time and money doing a patent search ahead of production, then I would be in total disbelief.

      Too bad, so sad.

  11. Callum Masson

    The question will become whether Nest can afford to fight the fight which in turn will be sized by what Honeywell wants to achieve.

    It would be interesting to see how many new ways you can design a thermostat.

    • What is broken is the way we enforce patents, and possibly patent lengths for certain types of patents. Courts keep enforcing patents as if the ideas behind the patents can be owned, which is as you say, utterly stupid.

  12. Evidently,Nest is busted,which will be ironed out in court. The head and most of Nest members are from Apple and that’s typical of Apple culture which is steal/copy from others; call it “magical”.And if someone does the same for, they sue sue and sue.

  13. And thus the problem with patents. Isn’t most of this glaringly obvious? Hrm, I need power for the device. I can use batteries, or maybe feed off of the existing power!

    Or, the user needs to set this up. Why not make it easy and ask obvious questions. I’m a thermostat, so I’d like to know what temperature you want the room to be at certain times. Seems pretty obvious.

    And as for the “ring” design, weren’t old-school thermostats built with a ring design? This has been around forever, so what’s the big deal?

    Oh, right.. Nest is REALLY popular and HoneyWell feels threatened. Why not use these overly broad patents to fight the new guys who probably don’t have the capital to deal with a lawsuit.

      • Agreed, the circle/dial has been around too long to still be applicable.

        Most of this suit seems weak and if they push it, and I were Nest, I’d just make the whole interface touch(screw the dial). Honeywell looks stupid here especially because they don’t even have a product that competes directly.

        Patents need reform…..badly. These overly broad imaginings called patents are doing to ruin our countries ability to survive the Chinese’s onslaught. They don’t care about patents. They’ll scan you and build a copy of you in 3 days flat :)

  14. @MichaelBrianBentley, Just to be clear, I didn’t do any legal research on the merits of the lawsuit, and I was just trying to highlight what tech Honeywell is actually going after at Nest. But anyone feel free to please weigh in on how well you think the lawsuit will do, or will not do!

    • Katie

      You’ve done a good job but with the 504 patent you’ve picked figures that aren’t covered by the claims.

      The claims require there to be two or more displayed answers to select from i.e multiple choice. Having an editable temperature doesn’t fall within the scope of the claims. Figures 8C-8E would be better.

  15. MichaelBrianBentley

    Regarding the ring control, Honeywell seems to have been using a similar mechanism for quite a while. I’m curious whether there’s enough similarity between the ring control they patented and the ring control on early iPods?

  16. MichaelBrianBentley

    The “Natural Language Installer Setup” patent wouldn’t cover the configuration of a variety of device setup like cars, printers, smart phones, wireless routers, fax machines…?