It’s potentially a multi-billion-dollar concept: take necessary but largely unloved household devices and give them an Apple-style makeover, emphasizing design and general “friendliness.” Sell them for a premium price, do the usual marketing outreach to tech publications such as Wired, and sit back to watch the profits roll in.
Well, the “profits” part is still an open question, but it’s clear now that Nest (based in Palo Alto, and headed by former Apple executive Tony Fadell) is out to reinvent those ugly, blocky devices—starting with the thermostat—that we bolt to our walls and ceilings out of necessity. Its new Nest Protect ($129), looks more like something for streaming music or movies than a smoke detector; inside its chic shell, the device packs an embedded system-on-a-chip and a handful of sensors, capable of connecting to other devices via wireless.
Nest Protect speaks to homeowners in a soothing voice, telling them about smoke detected in a particular room; it also has the ability to judge whether a particular combination of smoke, heat and carbon monoxide levels is cause for an actual alarm. By waving a hand in the device’s general direction, a user can shut down a false alarm before it starts—useful when a bit of cooking starts to fill the house with smoke. Nest’s engineers figure that, by transforming the smoke detector from annoying appliance to user-friendly “smart” fixture, people will be more inclined to actually leave it on, which in turn could save more lives.
“Would this be a cherished product? Can it be more than a rational purchase—can it be an emotional one?” is the thought process that Fadell uses when evaluating new products for Nest-ification, according to Wired. That sounds like something Apple designer Jony Ive would say about the latest iDevice; your own mileage may vary on whether you consider that a good thing.
Whether or not Nest actually succeeds, its emphasis on friendly design and function could serve as a template for helping popularize the so-called “Internet of Things.”
Research firm Gartner recently suggested that IT spending on so-called “smart” devices and associated hardware could eventually reach $4 trillion, with everything from smoke detectors and medical devices to automobiles and home appliances eventually studded with all sorts of sensors and communications technology. IT giants such as Cisco have been pushing the “Internet of Things” particularly hard over the past several quarters, as they stand to benefit enormously from sales of the servers and other infrastructure necessary to collect and filter the data from connected devices.
But how do you convince people to trade in their perfectly reliable equipment for new, “smart” technology? You give that stodgy hardware an iPhone-like sexiness, complete with all sorts of next-generation bells and whistles; and in the process, you transform the equation from “I guess I need to buy this” to “I want to buy this.” At that point, the only question becomes when the tech behemoths such as Apple will join the Nest-style startups in producing those sorts of gadgets.
Some privacy advocates are already crying foul. “My dear privacy enthusiast: activity sensors?” The Kernel’s Greg Stevens wrote (tongue somewhat in cheek) in a recent blog posting. “Storing movement data in order to learn what normal movements in the room are? Transmitting information about every light, sound and movement in your house via Wi-Fi to your phone… and who knows where else? Ladies and gentlemen, how can you possibly stay silent about the possible abuses of such a device?”
But since when have concerns over privacy prevented people from buying the next “cool” device?
Image: Nest Labs