• 10.24.11

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.

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

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.]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.