‘Nest’ Is the iPod of Thermostats

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Many years ago, Tony Fadell took an idea he had for a new gadget to Apple. It was a pocket-sized hard-disk MP3 player. Apple was impressed–and, just over a decade ago, released Fadell’s creation as the iPod. It was, as you may recall, quite popular.

(MORE: The iPod Turns 10: How It Shaped Music History)

Fadell went on to run Apple’s iPod division, but in 2008, he stepped down and in 2010, he severed all ties with Apple. He and his wife (also a former Apple employee) spent some of their newly-found free time with their kids, and some of it building a green home near Lake Tahoe.

While Fadell was working on his house, he had a new brainstorm. Why not take the thermostat–one of the most boring devices on the planet, and therefore one which is largely ignored by most homeowners–and make it interesting? Why not make it what he calls “a cherished object?” Why not make it a gadget?

Inspired, he co-founded a company called Nest Labs. It’s announcing its creation, the Nest, which it plans to ship in November for $249. And it’s not just the least boring thermostat ever invented: It’s downright interesting. When Fadell briefed me recently and did a demo, I got excited by its potential–and if you see one in person, I think you’ll be just as intrigued.

(MORE: 6 Things You’d Never Guess About Google’s Energy Use)

The Nest thermostat is in some ways reminiscent of the ancient one in my 1950s home–they’re both round, and let you control the temperature by rotating a ring. But it’s also radically different from any other thermostat you’ve ever seen, and almost explicitly evocative of the iPod, another gizmo you control by spinning a circular input device. (Fadell told me that he decided to pursue this idea in part because he promised Steve Jobs he wouldn’t compete with Apple, but his Apple experience practically exudes from the Nest nonetheless.)

Unlike most modern thermostats–which, if you’re lucky, have an LCD display, a few buttons, and rudimentary programming capabilities–the Nest is a sophisticated piece of consumer electronics. Inside the metal ring you spin to control it is a round color LCD. It’s also got Wi-Fi, allowing it to get onto the Internet. And it’s got embedded motion detectors, allowing it to have a sense of what’s going on around it.

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