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COVID: Excess Mortalities Two Years Later

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For most of the 10 years that I idly thought about thermostats, I had no intention of building one. It was the early 2000s, and I was at Apple making the first iPhone. I got married, had kids. I was busy.

But then again, I was also really cold. Bone-chillingly cold.

Every time my wife and I drove up to our Lake Tahoe ski cabin on Friday nights after work, we’d have to keep our snow jackets on until the next day. The house took all night to heat up.

Walking into that frigid house drove me nuts. It was mind-boggling that there wasn’t a way to warm it up before we got there. I spent dozens of hours and thousands of dollars trying to hack security and computer equipment tied to an analog phone so I could fire up the thermostat remotely. Half my vacations were spent elbow-deep in wiring, electronics littering the floor. But nothing worked. So the first night of every trip was always the same: We’d huddle on the ice block of a bed, under the freezing sheets, watching our breath turn into fog until the house finally warmed up by morning.

Then on Monday I’d go back to Apple and work on the first iPhone. Eventually I realized I was making a perfect remote control for a thermostat. If I could just connect the HVAC system to my iPhone, I could control it from anywhere. But the technology that I needed to make it happen—reliable low-cost communications, cheap screens and processors—didn’t exist yet.

How did these ugly, piece-of-crap thermostats cost almost as much as Apple’s most cutting-edge technology?

A year later we decided to build a new, superefficient house in Tahoe. During the day I’d work on the iPhone, then I’d come home and pore over specs for our house, choosing finishes and materials and solar panels and, eventually, tackling the HVAC system. And once again, the thermostat came to haunt me. All the top-of-the-line thermostats were hideous beige boxes with bizarrely confusing user interfaces. None of them saved energy. None could be controlled remotely. And they cost around US $400. The iPhone, meanwhile, was selling for $499.

How did these ugly, piece-of-crap thermostats cost almost as much as Apple’s most cutting-edge technology?

The architects and engineers on the Tahoe project heard me complaining over and over about how insane it was. I told them, “One day, I’m going to fix this—mark my words!” They all rolled their eyes—there goes Tony complaining again!

At first they were just idle words born of frustration. But then things started to change. The success of the iPhone drove down costs for the sophisticated components I couldn’t get my hands on earlier. Suddenly high-quality connectors and screens and processors were being manufactured by the millions, cheaply, and could be repurposed for other technology.

My life was changing, too. I quit Apple and began traveling the world with my family. A startup was not the plan. The plan was a break. A long one.

We traveled all over the globe and worked hard not to think about work. But no matter where we went, we could not escape one thing: the goddamn thermostat. The infuriating, inaccurate, energy-hogging, thoughtlessly stupid, impossible-to-program, always-too-hot-or-too-cold-in-some-part-of-the-house thermostat.

Someone needed to fix it. And eventually I realized that someone was going to be me.

This 2010 prototype of the Nest thermostat wasn’t pretty. But making the thermometer beautiful would be the easy part. The circuit board diagrams point to the next step—making it round.Tom Crabtree

The big companies weren’t going to do it. Honeywell and the other white-box competitors hadn’t truly innovated in 30 years. It was a dead, unloved market with less than $1 billion in total annual sales in the United States.

The only thing missing was the will to take the plunge. I wasn’t ready to carry another startup on my back. Not then. Not alone.

Then, magically, Matt Rogers, who’d been one of the first interns on the iPod project, reached out to me. He was a real partner who could share the load. So I let the idea catch me. I came back to Silicon Valley and got to work. I researched the technology, then the opportunity, the business, the competition, the people, the financing, the history.

Making it beautiful wasn’t going to be hard. Gorgeous hardware, an intuitive interface—that we could do. We’d honed those skills at Apple. But to make this product successful—and meaningful—we needed to solve two big problems:

It needed to save energy.

And we needed to sell it.

In North America and Europe, thermostats control half a home’s energy bill—something like $2,500 a year. Every previous attempt to reduce that number—by thermostat manufacturers, by energy companies, by government bodies—had failed miserably for a host of different reasons. We had to do it for real, while keeping it dead simple for customers.

Then we needed to sell it. Almost all thermostats at that point were sold and installed by professional HVAC technicians. We were never going to break into that old boys’ club. We had to find a way into people’s minds first, then their homes. And we had to make our thermostat so easy to install that literally anyone could do it themselves.

It took around 9 to 12 months of making prototypes and interactive models, building bits of software, talking to users and experts, and testing it with friends before Matt and I decided to pitch investors.

“Real People” Test the Nest

Once we had prototypes of the thermostat, we sent it out to real people to test.

It was fatter than we wanted. The screen wasn’t quite what I imagined. Kind of like the first iPod, actually. But it worked. It connected to your phone. It learned what temperatures you liked. It turned itself down when nobody was home. It saved energy. We knew self-installation was potentially a huge stumbling block, so everyone waited with bated breath to see how it went. Did people shock themselves? Start a fire? Abandon the project halfway through because it was too complicated? Soon our testers reported in: Installation went fine. People loved it. But it took about an hour to install. Crap. An hour was way too long. This needed to be an easy DIY project, a quick upgrade.

So we dug into the reports—what was taking so long? What were we missing?

Our testers…spent the first 30 minutes looking for tools.

Turns out we weren’t missing anything—but our testers were. They spent the first 30 minutes looking for tools—the wire stripper, the flathead screwdriver; no, wait, we need a Phillips. Where did I put that?

Once they gathered everything they needed, the rest of the installation flew by. Twenty, 30 minutes tops.

I suspect most companies would have sighed with relief. The actual installation took 20 minutes, so that’s what they’d tell customers. Great. Problem solved.

But this was going to be the first moment people interacted with our device. Their first experience of Nest. They were buying a $249 thermostat—they were expecting a different kind of experience. And we needed to exceed their expectations. Every minute from opening the box to reading the instructions to getting it on their wall to turning on the heat for the first time had to be incredibly smooth. A buttery, warm, joyful experience.

And we knew Beth. Beth was one of two potential customers we defined. The other customer was into technology, loved his iPhone, was always looking for cool new gadgets. Beth was the decider—she dictated what made it into the house and what got returned. She loved beautiful things, too, but was skeptical of supernew, untested technology. Searching for a screwdriver in the kitchen drawer and then the toolbox in the garage would not make her feel warm and buttery. She would be rolling her eyes. She would be frustrated and annoyed.

A white handheld device with 4 screwdriver heads, one on the bottom, and three at the top.Shipping the Nest thermostat with a screwdriver “turned a moment of frustration into a moment of delight”Dwight Eschliman

So we changed the prototype. Not the thermostat prototype—the installation prototype. We added one new element: a little screwdriver. It had four different head options, and it fit in the palm of your hand. It was sleek and cute. Most importantly, it was unbelievably handy.

So now, instead of rummaging through toolboxes and cupboards, trying to find the right tool to pry their old thermostat off the wall, customers simply reached into the Nest box and took out exactly what they needed. It turned a moment of frustration into a moment of delight.

Honeywell Laughs

Sony laughed at the iPod. Nokia laughed at the iPhone. Honeywell laughed at the Nest Learning Thermostat.

At first.

In the stages of grief, this is what we call Denial.

But soon, as your disruptive product, process, or business model begins to gain steam with customers, your competitors will start to get worried. And when they realize you might steal their market share, they’ll get pissed. Really pissed. When people hit the Anger stage of grief, they lash out, they undercut your pricing, try to embarrass you with advertising, use negative press to undermine you, put in new agreements with sales channels to lock you out of the market.

And they might sue you.

The good news is that a lawsuit means you’ve officially arrived. We had a party the day Honeywell sued Nest. We were thrilled. That ridiculous lawsuit meant we were a real threat and they knew it. So we brought out the champagne. That’s right, f—ers. We’re coming for your lunch.

Nest Gets Googled

With every generation, the product became sleeker, slimmer, and less expensive to build. In 2014, Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion. In 2016 Google decided to sell Nest, so I left the company. Months after I left, Google changed its mind. Today, Google Nest is alive and well, and they’re still making new products, creating new experiences, delivering on their version of our vision. I deeply, genuinely, wish them well.

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Apple’s Next Trick: Letting You Borrow Cables From Android Friends

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A photo of a USB-C cable

Photo: Sam Rutherford / Gizmodo

It might not seem like the needle-moving announcement that Apple would make. But thanks to a news bit from a trusted analyst, there’s hope on the horizon that someday soon, Apple iPhones and Android smartphones will stop being separated—by charging cables, at least. (Don’t expect any parity on messaging any time soon!)

This week on Gadgettes, we dive into the most recent Apple leaks. With WWDC 2022 fast approaching, we figured it’d be an appropriate time to round up some of what we’ve heard in the rumor mill.

In addition to the USB-C tidbit, there’s chatter about everything from what the Apple Watch Series 8 will be capable of to whether iOS 16 will see much of a significant bump. We’ll also get into some of the patents revealed over the past few weeks, including a Surface Pro-like keyboard for the iPad and a foldable iPhone with a color E Ink display.

Then, Sony does it again, grooving into our hearts with its new WH-1000XM5 headphones. The model name doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but you won’t care once you realize these are some of the best headphones money can buy. We’ll talk about why these headphones are worth their $400 price point. We’ll also get into the caveats of headphones like these and why the WH-1000XM5’s new folding mechanism might make you go for the last-generation model.

Finally, we’ll defend printers. We’ll explain why you might consider springing for an all-in-one printer for your at-home print shop. The compact HP Deskjet 6700 is an all-in-one that comes in a few colors and pairs rather nicely with the Amazon Basics laminator if you need to make reusable worksheets! HP also offers Instant Ink, which ships you ink cartridges so that you don’t have to worry about securing more when they run out.

Listen to this week’s episode of Gadgettes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Chromebook 101: how to change your Chrome OS channels and get unreleased features

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You might not know it from glancing at a Chromebook, but Google’s Chrome OS is in a constant state of evolution.

The operating system receives minor updates every two to three weeks and major releases every six weeks. And, at any given moment, Google’s staff is working on features and software enhancements that most people won’t see for a matter of weeks — or months.

Here’s a little secret, though: if you’re feeling adventurous, you can gain access to those unreleased enhancements. All it takes is the flip of a virtual switch in your Chromebook’s settings, and you’ll have all sorts of interesting new options at your fingertips.

First, it’s important to understand exactly what’s involved so you can make an educated decision about which setup makes the most sense for you.

Understanding the Chrome OS channels

Chrome OS actually exists in four separate development channels. The software you see on your Chromebook varies considerably depending on which channel you choose:

  • The Stable channel is the polished and ready for prime time version of the software that all devices use by default.
  • The Beta channel is updated weekly and receives new features about a month ahead of its Stable sibling.
  • The Developer channel is updated as frequently as twice a week and sees stuff that’s actively being worked on and has undergone only a small amount of testing.
  • Finally, the Canary channel is what Google describes as the “bleeding edge” Chrome OS path — a channel that receives daily updates prior to any widespread testing and can be accessed only by a Chromebook that’s switched into a special developer mode (which, somewhat confusingly, has nothing to do with the Developer channel).

The Stable channel is the safest option and what the vast majority of people should use — particularly those who need to know their computers will always work flawlessly without any hiccups or unexpected glitches.

If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind a bit of a risk, the Beta channel is a good way to get a peek at unreleased features without too much instability. The odds of running into something funky are certainly higher than with Stable, but, by and large, elements in Beta are fairly well-developed and just in the final phases of testing.

Most day-to-day users would be well advised to stay away from the Developer channel since it receives updates as they’re built and is quite likely to contain bugs. And, as for the Canary channel, if you’re not sure whether you ought to be using it, the answer is probably no.

Changing your Chrome OS channel

Once you’ve decided which channel you want to try, here’s how to make the switch:

  • Open your Chromebook’s settings.
  • Click About Chrome OS in the menu on the left, then click Additional details.

Click About Chrome OS in the menu on the left, then click Additional details.

  • Look for the category Channel and click the Change channel button. That’ll cause a pop-up to appear that lets you select the Stable, Beta, or Developer channel. (Canary, remember, is available only if your device is in Developer mode — a level of access that opens the door to more advanced forms of OS modification but also disables some of the software’s standard layers of protection. It requires several extra steps to enable and, again, isn’t advisable for most Chromebook users.)

Change channel menu

Choose the Stable, Beta, or Developer channel.

  • Click the channel you want, then click the blue Change channel confirmation button that appears.
  • Click the left-facing arrow at the top of the screen to get back to the About Chrome OS page. When you see the Restart button appear near the top of the page (it may take a minute or two), click it.

About Chrome OS page with Restart button

Hit the Restart button to complete the change.

And that’s it: as soon as your Chromebook finishes restarting, you’ll be on your new channel with all your accounts, files, and preferences in place just like you left them.

If you ever decide you want to move back to the Stable channel, repeat that same process and select Stable.

Change channel box with “Change channel and Powerwash” button.

If you change back to Stable, you’ll have to Powerwash your system.

Just note that moving in that direction — from a higher channel to a less experimental one — generally requires you to Powerwash your Chromebook. Powerwash means all of your information and data will be erased, and you’ll have to sign in anew and start over.

About ChromeOS box

Hit the Restart and reset button to finish the process of restoring the Stable channel.

The one exception: if your Chromebook is connected to a work- or school-based G Suite account, your data won’t be deleted and the change won’t take place immediately. Instead, you’ll have to wait until the lower channel catches up to the higher one in version number, which could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Update May 20th, 2022, 9:30AM ET: This article was originally published on October 15th, 2019, and has been updated to account for changes in the OS.

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HP refreshes Spectre x360 laptop with Intel 12th-gen and Ryzen 5000 chips, Intel Arc GPU, beefed up webcam, and a quieter fan, starting at $1,650 (Scharon Harding/Ars Technica)

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Scharon Harding / Ars Technica:

HP refreshes Spectre x360 laptop with Intel 12th-gen and Ryzen 5000 chips, Intel Arc GPU, beefed up webcam, and a quieter fan, starting at $1,650  —  HP Spectre laptops try out Intel discrete graphics, boosted webcams, new hues.  —  HP has revamped its Spectre x360 lineup of convertible …

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