Will You Be as Excited About Thermostats as You Were About iPods?

Stories from New Scientist.
Jan. 12 2013 7:45 AM

Phone Home To Turn Up the Heat

A former Apple inventor tackles the thermostat problem.

After quitting Apple, Tony Fadell, the tech guru behind the iPod, wanted to revolutionize our homes—starting with the humble thermostat.

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Douglas Heaven: After you left Apple, you developed a "smart" thermostat. Was that always your plan?
Tony Fadell: Not at all! The plan was to retire with my wife, who also worked for Steve [Jobs], and spend time with our children. We didn't see them because we were working so madly at Apple. We wanted to build a house in Lake Tahoe. I wanted to design the greenest, most connected house that I could. That's when I found out about the thermostat problem. These devices had not seen innovation in 30 years. They were the same as the ones our parents had. I wanted something that was very different.

DH: Your solution was the Nest. Tell me about it
TF: It uses algorithms and sensors to remember the temperatures you like, create a custom schedule for your home, and turn itself down when you are away. And you can use your smartphone, tablet, or computer to control it remotely. We call it the thermostat for the iPhone generation. It has a big dial, not fiddly buttons.

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DH: Did Steve Jobs have any input?
TF: I was going to talk to Steve about it. He knew we were working on something, but he didn't know what. When it was time to show him, he said he couldn't do it. Unfortunately, he died just a few weeks later, before he could see it.

DH: Is the Nest just the start of a range of smart-home devices?
TF: Absolutely. But if you look at what we did at Apple after the iPod came out, it took us five years to start thinking about the iPhone and two more years to finally ship it. I would love to make more devices, but our goal is to make the Nest successful first.

DH: Who would have believed the iPod could turn into the iPhone, then the iPad?
TF: Even I wondered how many people would buy an iPad. But you have to be at the right place in the cultural time. We plan a similar trajectory with the Nest, with the ways that emerging behaviors can happen in the home through interconnected devices. You can't start with all of these things at once because people's minds get blown. You start with very simple things, simple concepts, and then you can build on them.

DH: Will people have to continually upgrade their thermostats, as they do with cellphones?
TF: Unlike a cellphone, you're not going to change the NEST every 18 months! They are supposed to hang on your wall for 10 to 15 years. Our goal is to continue to improve it via software, and we have built tons of extra capability into this device to allow that to happen. For example, we have a new update that gives an energy report—it shows how you're doing compared with last month, and even compares you to your neighbors.

DH: Was it your aim to raise awareness of the energy we waste heating our homes?
TF: The Nest starts people thinking about how they're using energy in the home. But it's also a great party trick. You get people whipping out their phones and saying "Check out my Nest at home! Watch, I'm going to freeze my wife!"

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

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