We’ve been told that an Internet of Things (IoT) is coming, and our salt shakers will soon be speaking to our light bulbs. But how? There’s no decided way for all of these devices to talk to one another.
That was, until this week, when Nest, the smart thermostat company owned by Google, opened its platform to other devices and developers. Now, anyone can design their device to interface with Nest.
That means, when your Jawbone Up sees that you’ve woken up in the morning, it can tell Nest to warm your apartment. Or when the Nest sees that you’ve left the house, it can tell your Whirlpool dryer to keep cycling your clothes to keep them wrinkle free. Into the future, countless cause and effect relationships can be built into Nest in this way.
Right now, most of the interactions take place between these third-party devices and Nest's products. But its not hard to imagine that someday, these non-Nest products, already connected to the same Nest platform, will just start talking to each other, essentially using Nest as a translator.
In other words, Nest is positioning itself as the central platform for the Internet of Things. Jawbone connects to Nest. Whirlpool connects to Nest. People connect to Nest. It's easy for developers and consumers alike. But Google’s coup is just as much one of marketing as it is design and technology.
Three years ago, Google tried, and failed, to build out an Internet of Things platform. It was called Android@Home, and fizzled out because it was too abstract. It lacked a physical metaphor to show the uninitiated why Google's technology was essential for connected homes. In acquiring Nest, Google not only got a physical metaphor for its invisible technology, it got a recognizable figurehead.
The Nest was never conceived as part of some "smart home" platform. It was just a thermostat that stuck to your wall to learn your heating/cooling habits over time to save you money. To use it, all you did was set the temperature. (Many people might not even realize it had Wi-Fi connectivity inside.) This packaging of complex learning algorithms in an approachable industrial design made Nest a hit.
In hardware terms, Google’s Nest thermostat really is just a thermostat. There are no extra special chips inside Nest for the stranger Internet of Things devices. When all of these Jawbones and Whirlpools are connecting to what we’re so easily calling "Nest," they’re not connecting to some thermostat on the wall, but rather this software in the cloud, which is what will really make Nest something more than what it is. The Nest thermostat may display the results of these communications, and it might change the temperature accordingly if given the chance, but it’s still just a well-named, well-designed thermostat. That said, this thermostat serves as a warm, inviting, front door to Google's cloud.
Nest’s founder, Tony Fadell, knows a lot about making esoteric technology approachable for everyday people. Before Nest, he invented the iPod over at Apple, repackaging the techie "MP3 player" as an intuitive wheel to spin through thousands of your songs. And even though he’s designed what’s probably the most iconic Internet of Things device to date, Fadell hasn’t been shy about his hatred for the current geeky lexicon.
"I hate this ‘Internet of Things’ term. I hate the ‘connected home’ term," Fadell told Business Insider earlier this year. "Nobody buys the ‘connected home.’ They buy products."
But just because the branding was esoteric, it didn’t mean that the "smart home" or "Internet of Things" wasn’t coming anyway. The Home Depot already carries 600 smart home products. It’s why the invention platform Quirky just unveiled the Wink, a sort of wireless home router for the Internet of Things, capable of speaking Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and even more esoteric signals like Zigbee and Z-Wave that have become popular in home automation. Even Quirky’s founder Ben Kaufman told us how absurd it felt to build a device to link together all of these devices speaking various languages.
"We think hubs are stupid. Who wants to buy a box that doesn't do anything unless you do other stuff? It just seems like a ridiculous proposition," Kaufman tells Co.Design. "But right now it’s a necessary evil...you kind of need to have more than one language where the connected stuff is talking."
But the big difference between Quirky’s Wink and Google’s Nest is that the bulk of the Wink's value proposition lies in the hardware itself—a proposition that Nest may have just invalidated.
Make no mistake, the Nest hardware is just a facade for the Internet of Things, an approachable way for middle America to geek out on home automation. Google (and no doubt, Fadell) have been clever enough to use Nest as a hook into Google's Internet of Things universe; a hook that rolls off the tongue so, so much better than "The Int-er-net of Things." Nest.