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."