Co.Design

The iPod's Inventor Strikes Out On His Own, And Invents...A Thermostat?!

The Nest Learning Thermostat is gorgeous, intuitive, and more necessary than you think. Just like a certain blockbuster MP3 player was once upon a time.

Tony Fadell invented the iPod. Okay, he didn’t do it singlehandedly--but the former Apple executive conceived it, got Apple on board, and then went on to shepherd the development of 18 (!) generations of the company’s signature pre-iPhone product. In 2008 he left Apple and several years later founded a stealth startup called Nest Labs, which was revealed this year to be in the… thermostat business. Wait, what?

Yeah, you read that right. But not just a thermostat--the iPod of thermostats: a device so desirable and intuitive that it’ll turn home energy management into a must-have symbol of sustainable living. Fadell told Co.Design he intends the Nest Learning Thermostat, which will retail for $249.99 starting in November, to be "a jewel on the wall… most people try to hide the thermostat, but we’re trying to make it sexy and coveted so that you cherish it, and at parties people ask you about it and you’re proud of it." Big talk--but watch this teaser video and you just might become a believer:

The Nest thermostat actually is iPod-like: The display and primary interaction are instantly intuitive and physically irresistible. To adjust the temperature, turn a ring on the rim of the device--if you’re making it cooler, the display turns blue, and if you’re making it warmer, it turns red. The temperature itself is displayed in a clear, bright numeric readout--no more squinting at tick marks on a dusty dial. There’s also a little green leaf that appears on the screen to guide to you into tweaking your settings for optimal energy savings. And Fadell, no stranger to the importance of a good "unboxing" experience, even went so far as to include a high-quality, custom branded screwdriver with every unit. "When you take it out of the box you want it to be easy to install," Fadell says. "Apple taught me not to cut corners, and that you don’t give up on user experience--ever."

As Fadell notes, the thermostat business was ripe for disruption, and a tantalizing business opportunity as well. He stumbled upon it when he was building his own dream home, an experiment in cutting edge green design in Lake Tahoe. As he considered spending tens of thousands of dollars on a heating and cooling system, it just seemed wrong to link all that tech up to a $90 thermostat from Home Depot that barely worked as advertised, simply because its design was so poor. He waited for a better product to come along, but it didn’t. Upon investigating the market further, he discovered that 10 million thermostats are sold every year. Meanwhile, only 6% of programmable thermostats are actually programmed, even though a programmed thermostat can save 30-40% in heating and cooling costs. That’s was clearly a serious design problem.

So for users, the best thing about the Nest Learning Thermostat is under that gleaming case. It’s equipped with software that analyzes and tracks your usage patterns over time, so that you only have to twist that dial a dozen times before the thermostat can simply anticipate your climate-control needs and take care of it automatically. "Instead of programming their thermostats, most people have given up and treat it like a light switch," Fadell says. "But you have to make those manual adjustments about 1,500 times a year if you want to see any real energy savings." Nest’s version elegantly lets you set it and forget it--at least after that initial learning period. But this thermostat is so sexy, you probably won’t mind.

[Nest is available for pre-orders today.]

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59 Comments

  • nyrationallibertarian

    It ain't cheap, but probably pays for itself in a reasonable amount of time.  Not surprising it comes from someone who'd been at Apple.  I'd check it out.

  • Tivette

    BRAVO!  I was researching recently for a wireless remote thermostat and the least expensive brand was $475!!!

    So $250 sounds great to me, and I can use my iPhone--Can you write a program for the KINDLE?!  

  • Robert Eames

    The common thermostat was ripe for redesign surely, and I think the designers have done an outstanding job of thinking outside of the box by creating an intuitive new category to an otherwise uninspiring product.

    I like the look, and while it may stand out and not belong in many people's interiors, I imagine it be fabulous in my mid-century, museum-white, minimalist dream home (the one I don't currently own) and beautiful like original art.

    This is clearly a techie toy for people who clearly get off on this stuff and the $250.00 price tag will keep it exclusive. Fear not, the $39.99 version will appear on the big box store shelves with more face color options than a Dell computer in the next year or so. It will be missing features and functions, but will be a "designed" thermostat for the masses.

    I'll take mine in blue, thank you very much.

  • DallasGirl

    I'm sorry,  but I guess I still embrace design over function!  And frankly, no matter what cool things this product does,  I just want my thermostat to "blend".  I am hoping the blue or red are not displayed continuously.  If not, the device can certainly interfere with the overall design of any space.  I don't want to have to design my clients' rooms around a gadget.

  • Guest

    programmed our current thermostat no problem years ago. so this one programs itself, that's cool. but its looks obviously count just as much. so like calculators that add up your numbers for you so you don't need to, you can use your brain to think about more important things....like when the Patriots play Dallas again, or that you need a new gamepad for Halo 5? "Vive l'evolution."

  • DistinctAV

    The idea of temperature setback is based on occupant activities (sleeping, awake, and away). The next most important thermostat feature is optimum control over HVAC staging and other mechanical designs.

    While pretty from a great UI, beauty is only skin deep. The most powerful feature would be allowing interface from a smart home controller that is connected to the security system (for occupancy and door/window detection), the remotes (for activity detection), and the internet (for weather status and forecast).

  • Kaleberg

    I can't imagine wanting to program my themostat, and I dread the idea of my thermostat trying "learn" my living patterns and waking me up at 5AM by turning on the heating rather than letting me sleep until 8AM and plod around in a sweater for a an hour while the heat cranks up. Still, the idea of a Wifi controlled thermostat is good, I've been bitching for a WiFi appliance control standard for ten years now, but I had been pushing for wireless network appliance control since the mid-70s. Maybe it's about to happen. Sure, $250 is a lot, but prices in this business tend to plummet.

    A WiFi controller means people can finally write applications that run on personal computers (e.g. laptops or cell phones) to let them control things rather than relying on some god awful interface design with a tiny wall mounted screen with clunky buttons. Someone could actually come up with a usable interface, and people who want to program their thermostats could actually do so. Those of us who simply want to set the temperature from our bedroom while still under the covers or while hailing a cab at the airport can also do so.

  • cg

    Man, this rang true!  I got a new furnace and a programmable thermostat last year and I have yet to program it. I do treat it like a light switch.  The user manual has been sitting ON TOP OF the thermostat for 11 months!  This is a lovely design. Can't wait to see what Fadell does next.

  • Catman

    Very interesting, how about remote sensing or operating multiple heat pumps.  Looks sweet, not sure if I want a MCU making the decision to run my heat or not.   Does it have any fail safe features?  What happens when the power goes out and back on often?  Things can run great in the lab, the the real world is something else. 

  • Dan Wohlslagel

    To begin with- who is this clown who is taking sole credit for being the "inventor" of the iPod? Any good consumer product comes about from a process of development. Most likely, at Apple, it was a collaborative effort, using a Design process.

    This notion that consumer products are "invented" by sole individuals who are engineers is archaic, irrelevant, and downright inaccurate most of the time. Engineers solve mechanical, electronic, and programming problems. Most engineers are oblivious to the entire interface between people and the hardware- and could care less.

    Conceptualizing a consumer product that has this sort of appeal requires a more holistic understanding of human factors, ergonomics, Branding, and aesthetics. Read: industrial design.

    Unlike the invention of the light bulb, which was almost solely a functional item- as mentioned by a previous poster- this is an example of Design Thinking.

  • Oscar J. Acosta

    I have noticed some comments about the design and its pertinence, it is more than correct to embrace a "brand" as long as this embracing does not close our perspective on the rest of the spectrum, that one former Apple designer jumps the boat does not mean that he is betraying its principles, he is simply changing focus and career, as any designer does, if you are a true designer you move, play and are curious and creative, Mr. Fadell is a designer and as such he is bound to different lines of products, and I must add a big AND living in a zone like Lake Tahoe, and I personally living in a zone where temperatures drops well below -20 °C, can tell that the thermostat plays a central part of our livelihood, that important it is and not just for me but for a few hundred million north Americans (Canada included) and Europeans.

    So I myself am grateful for Mr. Fadell's incursion into the rather complicated programmable thermostat market and revolving it as it should have been done several years ago. I am only waiting for it to roll out in order to change a few on my home, it will be a refreshing change not only visually but functionally, accolades to Mr. Fadell.

  • Dexter Francis

    Fabulous illustration of the value of Design Thinking, passion and Jobsian attention to detail.  BRAVO!

  • Mateo On Mongo

    Not to deify Jobs, but it's products like these that help me to really appreciate Jobs unique genius and leadership. Don't get me wrong, this thermostat is well-designed and a thing of beauty. But in the case of the Ipod and so many other hugely successful "I" products, it was about much more than user interfaces and compelling aesthetics. It was about a whole integrated "solution", and one that folks instantly "got" and "had to have". So, attractive and well-thought out though it may be, this widget doesn't do that for me. And aside from the issue of (not) interfacing with a computer, for example how about including a few more basic options, like say, remembering settings to suit individual occupants? Heck, even my car seat can do that (and it's very simple to do)! And yes, this certainly looks cooler than my Honeywell programmable thermostat, but is it a $200 better device... hmmm, dunno about that part.

  • TheDesignApproach

    What happens if you don't have a set schedule?  Does it go haywire like a poorly responded Pandora Channel that starts playing a lot of music you don't like?  Could this get so overwhelmed with random settings that it starts turning up/down the heat when you don't want?

    I hate to play devils advocate... but I'm good at it.  I love the concept! and the design!