Honeywell Shouldn’t Sue Thermostat Upstart Nest. It Should Make a Better Thermostat.

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Feb. 8 2012 7:30 AM

The Thermostat Wars

How Honeywell could beat popular upstart Nest.

(Continued from Page 1)

When I compared the Nest and the Prestige, I found that feature for feature, Honeywell’s thermostat is more capable. It can sense the temperature in many different rooms, and then report an average household climate. It can strike a balance between indoor and outdoor humidity in a way that prevents condensation on the windows. It can continuously monitor and report on any drops in efficiency of my furnace or air conditioner, saving me money. It has an optional remote control that also acts as a temperature sensor, a concept that I found very cool. Most thermostats, including the Nest, are set up in one stationary location (usually the hall). But the temperatures in that location and every other room can vary widely, so if you want your bedroom to get to 70 degrees, you might have to set your thermostat several degrees higher or lower. Honeywell’s remote control solves that problem: Put it in the bedroom and it’ll force the thermostat to heat up the house until the bedroom, not the hall, registers 70. The Nest can’t do that.

On the other hand, you don’t need a one-page dossier, two installers, and an hour-and-a-half briefing to describe and install the Nest. That’s Honeywell’s greatest problem: Its thermostat is Windows to Nest’s iOS. Honeywell’s thermostat can do a whole lot more, but it’s not nearly as graceful, attractive, or captivating as the one designed by the former Apple executive.

One problem is Honeywell’s business model. It sells the Prestige to professional home heating and cooling installers, who then sell it on to consumers as part of a larger furnace or air conditioning renovation. This makes the Prestige more expensive than Nest—$200 to $300 for the main unit, not including the contractor’s installation fee or the add-ons available for the unit. And because Honeywell is trying to appeal to contractors rather than end users, it has little incentive to focus on the things you and I would care about—like the design of the device, the simplicity of the user interface, or the ease of installation.

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The Nest, meanwhile, is sold directly to consumers at retail stores and on the Web, and it’s meant to be as easy to install and use as any other gadget. I’m only moderately handy, but I was able to pop in the Nest in no time, and I found that did, as promised, “learn” my preferences. After a few days when it required me to set my temperature manually, the Nest—which is loaded with sensors and predictive algorithms—was able to guess how I liked my house to feel, and adjust everything accordingly. To quote Steve Jobs, it just works.

But Nest isn’t unstoppable. Honeywell has been in the thermostat business forever, and it’s got a lot of engineering and distribution advantages. It also, clearly, has a lot of innovative ideas. From what I’ve seen of its gear, Honeywell seems quite capable of creating a consumer-friendly version of the Prestige, one that works as easily and stylishly as the Nest. Now that Nest has paved the way, Honeywell would likely earn a lot of press coverage, too. I’d certainly be willing to try out such a device.

Suing Nest isn’t going to help Honeywell win any customers. Challenging Nest to a good old-fashioned thermostat-off is a much wiser idea.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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