Nest’s Tony Fadell on Smart Objects, and the Singularity of Innovation
Tony Fadell is the founder and chief executive of Nest, a company that is trying to bring a high-end technology experience to some of the most prosaic areas of the home. Nest’s first product was a thermostat, which it followed with a smoke alarm.
The products draw rave reviews for their sleek physical design, but Mr. Fadell says Nest’s real success has much to do with the background technology, like networking and algorithms. These enable it to sell energy-saving services, and offer homeowners insight into what is going on inside their walls.
Before starting Nest in 2010, Mr. Fadell held senior positions at Apple on the teams that created the iPod and the iPhone and ran the mobile computing group at Philips Electronics. He holds over 300 patents.
The following is a conversation with Mr. Fadell:
We have energy services, like rush-hour rewards and seasonal savings, to consume less energy. We look at each home with sensor data and algorithms, and figure out which homes qualify. Is comfort or money your No. 1 thing, are you home a lot, does your home have great thermal characteristics? We won’t offer it if you don’t qualify.
With the Nest Protect [smoke alarm] we are reinventing something that is incredibly frustrating for most people. Smoke detectors beep. We try to give you information, like what to do in an emergency, or that there’s smoke in the kitchen. Is it a “heads-up,” or an emergency? Is it carbon monoxide? If it is, we might say you should turn off the furnace.
The key technologies are communications, algorithms, sensors and user experience, running over a network to the cloud. You have to go top to bottom, with knowledge not just of design, but of the device, the network, the data services, and back down to the sensors — and the battery life implications of all that. You need to have expertise at every one of those levels. Then we do a lot of analytics on products, sales and customer support.
It wasn’t until the Apple Macintosh that people understood what true hardware-software integration was about. It took one company to line it up: low-cost hardware, cool graphics, third-party products built on top of it, in an all-in-one attractive package that was accessible to consumer marketing. Look at the iPod, the iTunes music store. People talked about MP3 players – one company lined it up. Mobile phones, one company top to bottom understood networks, data services and handsets applications, top to bottom. Same thing with tablets: It doesn’t happen until you put all those things to create one experience together.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The downside is the discovery of new things. We get locked into the music you like, never discover anything new. You go to a restaurant and always eat the same thing, versus the serendipity of finding something new. You can get constrained because everything is watching you. You have to inject that.