A View from Tom Simonite
Nest Acquisition Is Like Apple and Google Teamed Up
Google’s Nest acquisition will see a team that builds and polishes technology like Apple given access to the AI power of the search giant.
Google’s newest employee, Nest CEO Tony Fadell, has a big personality and a loud laugh. He likes to talk about Apple. In fact, when I met Fadell and his co-founder Matt Rogers for a profile of their company published last February (see “Control Freaks”), the way he emoted, enthused, and vented about the design, function, and frustrations of consumer technology reminded me of Steve Jobs’s public persona.
Fadell worked with Jobs for years at Apple, leading the creation of the iPod, and along with Rogers he played a major role in birthing the iPhone. Both Nest founders repeatedly told me that their new company was run much like their old iPhone team back in Cupertino and featured many of the same engineers. Fadell told me that Nest came about because working on the iPhone permanently changed his expectations of personal technology. Everything suddenly looked stupid and too complicated, particularly when it came to high-end technology for the home. “These things are brain dead,” he said. “Nest is about making it so simple that it’s empowering for everyone, just like the iPhone did or the iPod did.”
That Apple heritage shows through in Nest’s product design, corporate secrecy, and obsessive attention to detail. It seems unlikely to be diluted much very soon. An official statement from Google and a blog post from Nest this week both say that the company will remain an independent unit. Fadell also told Gigaom this week that Google would be providing the money and administrative infrastructure he needed to focus full time on his Apple-like way of creating new products. In other words, Nest’s future and what it produces may be the closest we ever get to an Apple-Google collaboration.
That could see Nest’s devices get significantly smarter. The company already had a Google-like aspect in its use of machine learning and live streams of data to make its thermostat able to learn a person’s habits. But Fadell and Rogers will now have access to arguably the world’s strongest talent pool in machine learning and related techniques.
Those new powers of data analysis come at the perfect time for Nest. Its recently launched smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, called Nest Protect, gives the company access to much more detailed information on the activity inside of a home.
The Nest thermostat already had the ability to link over Wi-Fi to another Nest thermostat in the same house to pool their data on when people adjusted the temperature and when activity was detected by the devices’ short- and long-range motion sensors. The Nest Protect has its own motion and light sensors that can feed data to a Nest thermostat nearby. In a home with multiple Nest smoke detectors, the company’s devices could get a very detailed picture of the inhabitants’ movements.
That could strengthen the Nest thermostats’ ability to learn what its owners like. It might also help Nest come out with entirely new products and services that use the house-wide data and connectivity, for example a security system.
Nest might also potentially gain access to new sources of data inside Google. The company’s assistant software Google Now (see “Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead”) has shown that Google’s data allows it to track and predict people’s lives. It’s possible to imagine Nest’s home control devices making use of that app’s knowledge of your upcoming travel plans, how long it will take you to get home from work, and your location at any particular moment, including whether you’re at home.
Although the Nest brand looks set to remain associated with technology for the home, the acquisition brings Google significant engineering talent that could be used in other areas. Fadell and Rogers told me that their thermostat had similar internals to a smartphone. But looking more broadly, they assembled a team of engineers—many long-time Apple employees—that could likely turn their hands to any compact device with computing power, sensors, and Internet connectivity.
That could help Google’s shift to being more involved in consumer hardware, seen in its partnering with several companies on Nexus-branded phones and its acquisition of Motorola. A rumored smart watch project and the Google Glass wearable computer, scheduled for consumer release this year, could also conceivably benefit from Nest’s engineering talent. Although he has indicated he will stay working on Nest’s home technology, Fadell could surely talk engagingly, and at length, about the simplicity and ease of use that he believes personal technology must offer to the face-worn device.