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After Steve Jobs: What We Can Learn From The Nest Thermostat

Founded by former Apple employees, a new company and its flawlessly designed (and marketed) thermostat point to a bright future for Apple.

The central question about Apple these days is what it will become without Steve Jobs’s passionate conviction and daily direction in the design of the company’s products and services. Tuesday night, at an invitation-only party in Palo Alto, I got a peek at the answer. The Silicon Valley startup Nest launched its product—nay, company—at the new and trendy Reposado restaurant. Never has there been so much fanfare about the introduction of a thermostat.

What does this nascent company have to do with Steve Jobs? Led by a former client of mine, tech wunderkind and former iPod/iPhone leader Tony Fadell, and his partner, Matt Rogers, Nest is an ambitious venture composed of former Apple employees, as well as a mix of very strong leadership from other origins. Erik Charlton, who consulted at Philips when Tony ran the marketing team there, and David Sloo, who worked with Tony at General Magic, an Apple spinoff, developed Nest’s simple yet powerful user interface. The party was peppered with lots of current Apple employees, too.

The promise of Nest seems to be that it will bring simplicity and control to home automation, starting with an attack on the outdated thermostat. Nest’s thermostat learns your life patterns and preferences over time and then predicts a temperature set point. It integrates information from a range of sensors, and even the weather in your area, to inform its decisions. And of course, there’s an app for that: You can control Nest from a web browser or an iPhone app. It’s a perfect product surrounded by an ecosystem of service and smarts. Sound familiar?

And here’s the amazing thing: The Nest product, marketing, and launch are all fantastic. The product is duh-simple, even though it’s achieving a pretty complex function. It has a straightforward interface that melds seamlessly with its form, which is beautifully executed. The company’s website is compelling, and in fact, on the day of the launch, it had already secured rave reviews from all the top media outlets you’d want to endorse your product, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times. And while Nest has a commitment to green ideals—the smart thermostat helps save energy—it hasn’t positioned sustainability as the central value proposition. Which I think this is pretty smart. In the near future, the best products will attract us because they are great, including because they’re mindful of the environment.

In a side conversation I had with Tony a few weeks ago, he confessed that when he started at Apple he didn’t think that the intense attention to detail was all that important in producing successful products. He now sings a different tune, and the near perfection of the Nest launch is a testament to that. Based on what we saw Tuesday night, Nest is using creativity and focused intuition to build a company that will rival Apple in the excellence of products, services, and experiences.

And this bodes well for Apple. If its DNA can strike out on its own and produce a company like Nest, I’m becoming more convinced that Apple has a good chance of continuing to make the most compelling products in the world, even without Steve Jobs’s guiding hand.

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    i'm unsure why nest is getting so much hype how often do we use a thermostat .

  • John EDson

    The other bit of genius worth highlighting here is that they almost certainly have their sights on full home automation, but they didn't launch with a Home Automation Center, or some such thing...  They launched with a single-function, easy to grasp product.  But with a name like Nest, I'd put my money on future products that seamless tackle other home challenges, from energy conservation to security and even entertainment.

  • John Edson

    Thanks for the terrific comments, everyone.

    Pete:  yes, installation ease will be key.  From what I've seen, they've made it as simple as possible...  And it ships with its own screwdriver.  From the looks of it, it's easier than installing a ceiling light fixture, but not as easy as replacing a light bulb.  There are still wires to understand and connect, but everyone has someone handy enough around to do this, right?

    JSonline:  Don't mistake design for function. looks, sounds and smells like complicated technology.  They haven't done the hard work of making all those confusing bits and pieces accessible or desirable to humans.  Even the name is bewildering.  Design is what brings all of these things into a beautiful, ingenious and charismatic expression, which is exceptionally hard work, but man, does it pay off.

  • Steve Ravelonjato

    I can't believe I had this idea not to long ago and a few months later, boom this comes out lol

  • BJGraham

    This product is exceptionally important because it carries the ability to spur and intelligent privatized eco-revolution. It starts with a thermostat that can blend our consumer tendencies, growing expectations, and desire for efficiency. Here's why

  • Pete Mortensen

     Nice piece, John.

    I'm most interested to see their approach to selling and installation, which seems to be the biggest barrier to the adoption of smart home tech. Integrated stuff is very expensive and disruptive (especially when not installed during initial construction), and the add-ons (including JSOnline's link) tend to be a hacked together and ugly.
    Can you deliver the fit and finish Nest is promising with a painless installation process that shows the value and need for automation beyond a thermostat? That's the biggest question they need to answer. I'm intrigued to see what they come up with.

  • BruceKap

    Okay, JSOnlinw, there are other smart and, perhaps, learning thermostats. But customers appreciate simplicity and design. This is the lesson of the iPod, right? There were other MP# players before the iPod, and other MP# marketplaces before iTunes (remember But the iPod one by making it easy, attractive and cool.

    The Nest thermostat bears a family resemblance to the iPhone and it will  resonate with customers.

    Now can you get it to control my sprinklers, please?

  • JSonline

    Very sleek and stylish.  People may buy it just for that, but this functionality has been around for a while. comes to mind.  NEST does seem to have the edge in marketing dollars though :)

  • kylehayes

    I never thought I would use the word sexy to describe a thermostat, but Nest has made it happen! I love the intuitive, one touch functionality paired with beautiful design; Apple's philosophy at its best.

  • Cubicles_suck

    74 degrees, huh? Must be marketing it to Californians. If I ever turned the heat up that high in our Maine house, my wife would slaughter me :) Very interesting product though.