Why Nest Founders Tony Fadell And Matt Rogers Left Apple To Build A Thermostat

This is what happens when two guys who helped develop iPods and iPhones decide to make a thermostat.

In the 35 years since a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter called on America to turn down the thermostat, the technology behind household climate control hasn’t changed much. Sure, there were some incremental improvements, but the world’s brightest minds weren’t exactly set on revolutionizing your A/C. After all, it’s far sexier to build smartphones, right?

Not to Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, who left Apple’s iPod and iPhone development division in 2010 to start Nest, a technology company working to bring thermostats into the 21st century.

"I actually didn’t tell too many friends that I was going to build a thermostat," Rogers says. "As we moved closer towards launch, and we told them about the product, first they were like, 'A thermostat? Really? You guys are going from building iPods and iPhones to thermostats?'" But then Rogers explained that thermostats control half of a home’s energy usage, and that the design and features of practically every model on the market left much to be desired. Some who heard the pitch became so excited that they left companies like Google, Microsoft, and Twitter to join Nest Labs in its crusade to build a better (and more beautiful) thermostat.

Right out of the box, Nest’s biggest innovation is that it can be controlled remotely with an iPhone or Android phone. But as time goes on, Nest will also remember what temperature you prefer at different times during the day. It has a sensor that knows when a home is empty so it can adjust the temperature accordingly. And as a small reward for eco-minded residents, the thermostat displays a green leaf whenever the temperature is set to an energy-saving level.

Rogers says the biggest challenge is convincing customers that a state-of-the-art thermostat is just as desirable as a state-of-the-art laptop or phone. And while most thermostats cost less than $100, Nest's sells for $249.95. "My biggest fear with running Nest is, basically, people don’t care. So what we looked to add in terms of features and design and value is all about fixing that complacency." Nest also faces a patent complaint from Honeywell, one of the original pioneers of the thermostat business. (Nest has denied the validity of the complaint, and Fadell recently told the Verge that Honeywell was "worse than a patent troll.")

In the midst of these challenges, however, Rogers' ambitions remain high. "If I'm able to say that I helped contribute to (solving) the energy crisis, if we’ve saved 2% or 3% off the grid, that’s more than whole industries do."

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10 Comments

  • Anon x2

    He's totally right about Honeywell though. I've been following the development of the Nest thermostat for a while now and Honeywell have proven themselves 120% worthy of the troll label with the crap they've pulled.

  • Anon x2

    OK, so framing the state of intelligent hvac systems as a well it's a retro mercury switch or a Nest iP*d-friendly one' is disingenuous at best.

    While what I've done in my very modestly normal house (which isn't trendy enough to be featured in any design magazines or a Cribs episode) isn't mind-blowingly easy, it's not rocket science either.... it takes very little effort to detect the presence of humans in a house - with an Eeebox pc (ebay 'em cheap) you can have a 'server' that consumes a whole 18w of power. You then can 'pull' the data by looking for a Bluetooth signature for known phones, or you can 'push' the data from phones that either use cell tower triangulation or GPS for lat,long coordinates. You then can enable or disable a thermostat (mercury, smart, whatever) with basic systems like a low voltage relay to interrupt the 'run now!' setting or something slightly more advanced like a temperature setback based on real, honest-to-God occupancy. It's exceedingly rare for someone not to have their phone when they leave the house, so I would wager hard money that my results are just as good if not better than Nest has found for optimizing my hvac energy usage. In fact, my experiences led me to extend control to my hot water system as well.

    While I admire the styling and technological innovations in the Nest thermostat, let's be honest here - the target market for this is that prick leadfoot Beamer or sole-person-in-the-Excursion driver with a McMansion that wants to brag about about doing their part without actually having to do anything differently from their normal lifestyle of excess.

    No government oppression conspiracy required, Dave the nutjob.

  • Shaun Dakin

     I really really wanted to like my Nest.   But this is not ready for prime time.   Not by a long shot.   Buy a gadget that doesn't work, so what.  You fix or return it.  Buy a gadget that cools your house and it breaks in 110 degree heat and you have a possible life threatening situation.

    My review is here.  http://shaundakin.posterous.co...

  • dave

    uhh.. these clowns did nothing but act as a front for the DARPA smart meter project.  This has so little to do with efficiency and has a lot more to do with the government now having control over your thermostat.  If you're using too much electricity, they shut your ass down and/or hit you with some ridiculous carbon tax.  Enjoy paying Al Gore and David Rothschild money for leaving your lights on too long or your air conditioner set too low.  Most people will just ignore the injustice of it and simply pay up.  The real trendy idiots will praise the smart meter simply because they think it's some sort of Apple spin off.  It's not.  It's an oppression tool.

  • Jess

    It can save you $30,000 over 20 years of use.  Apple makes much more useless toys that are updated every year and cost $100 a month for service.

  • SayHi2YourMom4Me

    Well, I don't really live in a cold area I suppose. It's just tough for me to see people get excited enough over a thermostat to pay 250 for it.

  • Paulg

    "In the 35 years since a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter called on America to turn down the thermostat, the technology behind household climate control hasn’t changed much." <----  that is flat out wrong and so misinformed as to boggle the mind. To suggest that the innovation of programmable / automated thermostats wasn't a huge step from simple one-temperature thermostats is bizarre. Not sure if it was a grand stab at making the Nest seem cooler, but it wasn't even required to make the product seem innovative. It only served to start the reader with a "huh" at the beginning of the article. The writer should chill out on the oversell, and where was his editor?

  • NoahRobischon

    Honeywell introduced the first programmable thermostat in 1968, nearly a decade before Jimmy Carter made that statement. What's more, the US EPA found that in residential settings, "Available studies indicate no savings from programmable thermostat (PT) installation. Some studies indicate slight increased consumption." Here's a link to that report: http://www.energystar.gov/ia/p...

  • Paulg

    I wasn't speaking to a single date of invention, it was the broad statement that in 35 years thermostat technology hasn't changed much. Even if the programmable thermostat was invented in 68' (this says 77' for time based models which is what most people associate with "programmable" http://www.prothermostats.com/... ) it's broad adoption happened much later. And there has been all kinds of innovations in "smart houses" and control devices for HVAC since Carter. Wifi thermostats have been out for while with built in customization and control. I think the Nest is super cool. It's a great innovation in the right direction. My whole point was that the opening statement of the article isn't really true, or at the least an oversell. It just stopped me in my tracks. I love your publication and you guys are always great and informative. Just commenting on what seemed to me a misguided premise for the article.