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Innovation By Design

Nest CEO Tony Fadell On Why Jetsons-esque Connected Homes "Just Don't Work"

Fadell on the future of smart homes, Google's $3.2 billion acquisition of his company, and why the Nest Protect has "a motherly voice."

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Kicking off Fast Company's Innovation By Design 2014 Conference, Fast Company Executive Editor Noah Robischon hosted an intimate chat with Nest CEO Tony Fadell. The designer behind the original iPod, Fadell founded Nest in 2010 as a way to make our homes smarter. In front of a packed audience, Fadell talked about the future of the connected home, Google's $3.2 billion buyout of Nest, the importance of getting design details right, and whether or not Fadell might be Google's big Android boss someday. Here, four insights from the CEO who wants to change how we live:

The Jetsons Were Wrong

When most people envision the connected home of the future, they imagine a big glowing button on their wall, connected to some HAL-like artificial intelligence that can do everything: raise your blinds, make your coffee, turn on your TV, and so on.

Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company

"That's not the right way to think about it," Fadell says. "People don't buy platforms. They buy one product at a time that somehow differentiates itself from every other product in their life. And then they move onto the next one. And the next one. You need to make standalone, great products, and if they can eventually all talk to each other 10 or 20 years down the line, then great. "

That's why Fadell thinks a Jetsons-like vision of the future of the connected home is bonkers. "The people who are pitching those kinds of products, it amazes me," Fadell says. "They just don't work."

Why Google Bought Nest

Many people assume that search giant Google bought Nest as a way to gather information on people in their own homes as well as online, but Fadell says that there's actually no data overlap between Nest's data and Google's.

"All the data we've gathered are kept on Nest's own servers, it doesn't mingle with Google's at all," Fadell says. "That was well-understood by Google well before we signed the deal."

Nor was it about a $3.2 billion paycheck.

"We didn't even talk about price until all the other details of how we'd work together were worked out," Fadell said. "But after 25 years working in Silicon Valley, what it takes to build a world-changing platform, it's a huge mission. Eventually, the big boys are going to get involved."

What the Nest deal was really about, Fadell says, was synergy. "Talking about the Nest roadmap, we were completing each other's sentences," Fadell says. "Google and Nest are just birds of a feather: We all understand on a fundamental level what we need to do to take Nest to the next level. It's not a marriage of convenience; it's a marriage of mission."

Why Details Matter

Asked why Nest went to the curious length of designing its own screwdriver to ship alongside the Nest, Fadell said that it was because a product's smallest details matter.

"If you think about why we've all got these yellow gray boxes on our walls, it's because thermostats were designed for electricians, not consumers," Fadell says. "But the Nest is a consumer product, we developed it for consumers, and because a thermostat needs to be installed, we needed to make sure consumers were comfortable installing it. So that little screwdriver is our way of signaling to customers that there's nothing to worry about: we've thought of everything."

Another example: Fadell shared with the audience how his company settled on an appropriate voice for the Nest Protect, the company's intelligent smoke and CO detector.

"For the Nest Protect, the last thing we wanted was some LED blinking out Morse code," Fadell says. "We wanted it to have a humanizing effect. In particular, we wanted the Nest Protect to have a motherly voice, because studies have shown that kids are more likely to wake up to the sound of their mother's voice when there's danger, where as they'd just sleep through a beeping smoke alarm."

Photo: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company

From there, Nest did a talent search in the United States, Canada, and Europe, reading through lines of over 100 different voice actors. At the end of the day, the Nest Protect needed a culturally appropriate mother's voice for each language and territory it shipped in. Another company might not have bothered, but according to Fadell, "it's those sort of details we feel we have to go to the nth degree on."

Android's Once And Future King?

Asked if the buy-out of Nest was just a way of bringing Fadell in as Google's go-to product guy, Fadell sent mixed messages. While stressing Google's current teams were doing fantastic work, he seemed open to it, but doubted it was practical.

"I mean, if someone asked me to take over everything? Yes. But no one's asked," said Fadell. "And really, I just don't have the time."

Sounds like a qualified "yes" to me.

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