What did I learn from Nest?

So today Google announced that they will pay US$3.2B for Nest Labs. Surely the intention here is to have the staff of Nest help Google with home automation, the larger Internet of Things (IoT) direction, and user interfaces. All three of these are, frankly, trouble spots for Google, and if they nurture the Nest team and let them thrive, it’ll be a good addition to Google. Otherwise, they will have wound up paying a premium to buy out a good company and lose the employees as soon as they can run.

In 2012, just after I received it, I wrote about my experience with the first generation Nest thermostat. As I said on Monday evening when asked how I liked my Nest, I said:

It hasn’t exactly changed my life, but it has saved on energy costs, and it’s not hideous like most thermostats.

As I noted on Twitter as well, today’s news makes me sad. I bought Nest because it felt like they truly cared about thoughtful design. I also got the genuine feeling from the beginning that they cared genuinely about privacy.

Last year, I wrote the following about the dangers in relying on software (and hardware) that relies upon subscriptions:

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

Unfortunately, my words feel prophetic now. If I’d known two years ago what I know today, maybe I’d have wavered more and decided against the Nest. Maybe not.

As I look back at Nest, it helps me frame the logic I’ll personally use when considering future IoT purchases. Ideally from now on, I’d like to consider instead:

  1. Buying devices with open APIs or open firmware. If the APIs or firmware of Nest were opened up, the devices could have had alternative apps built against them by the open-source community (to generally poor, but possible, effect). This is about as likely to happen now as Nest sharing their windfall with early adopters like myself.
  2. Buying devices with standards-based I/O (Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi) and apps that can work without a Web point of contact. While a thermostat is a unique device that does clamor for a display, I think that most devices on the IoT should really have a limited, if any, display and rely on Web or smart phone apps over Wi-Fi or BT 4.0 in order to be configurable. Much like point 1, this would mean some way out if the company shutters its Web API.
  3. Buying devices from larger companies. Most of the major thermostat manufacturers are making smarter thermostats now, although aesthetically, most are still crap.
  4. Buying “dumb” alternatives. A minimalist programmable or simple non-programmable thermostat again.

In short, it’ll probably be a while before I spend money – especially premium money – on another IoT device.

Peter Bright wrote a great piece the other day on why “smart devices” were a disaster waiting to happen. Long story short, hardware purveyors suck at creating devices that stand any sort of chance of being updated. In many ways, the unfortunate practice we’ve seen with Android phones will likely become the norm with lots of embedded devices (in cars or major appliances). What seems so cool and awesome the day we buy a new piece of technology will become frustrating as all hell when it won’t work with your new phone or requires a paid subscription but used to be free.

In talking with a colleague today, I found myself taking almost a Luddite’s perspective on smart devices and the IoT. It isn’t that these devices, done right, can’t make our lives easier. It’s that we always must be wary of who we’re buying them from, whether they truly make our life easier or not, and what future they have. I’ve never been a huge believer in smart devices, but if designed considerately, I think they can be beneficial. As for me, I think the main thing I learned from Nest is to always consider the worst possible outcome of the startup I buy hardware from (yes, to me, Google was just shy of the worst possible outcome, which would have been seeing it shut down).

While I had hopes that Apple would buy Nest, as I noted on Twitter, that idea probably never really made sense. Nest made custom hardware and custom (non Apple, of course) software that had far more to do with Google’s software realm than Apple’s. I also think that while the thermostat is a use case that lots of people “just get”, I’m not sure that the device fits well in Apple’s world. While the simple UI of the Nest is very Apple-like, it doesn’t seem like a war Apple would choose to fight. I think when it comes to home automation, Apple will be standing back and letting Bluetooth 4.0 interconnected home devices take the helm in the smart home, but having iOS play the role of conductor. I also had hopes that Nest could try to be bold and push the envelope of home automation beyond the hacky do-it-yourself approaches that have been around for years before the Nest arrived, but I’m fearful whether the Nest team will succeed with that at Google. I guess time will tell. It pains me to see Nest become part of Google, but I have to congratulate the Nest team on pushing the envelope as they did, and I hope for their sake and Google’s that they can continue to push that envelope successfully from within Google.

  • 80s Rocker

    I just told my wife I wanted to get a Nest Thermostat this year, but now not sure will do that now, Google already has to much of my information. In addition, Google’s support for providing quality apps for the Windows Phones is very poor, (ie?: YouTube). I am not saying I won’t get one, but will let this play out longer before making a final decision.