Up until October 2011, thermostats were probably the least thrilling, unsexiest things in the universe. Those little electronic boxes fixed on the walls of a quarter-billion U.S. homes and offices, controlling heat and cooling, ranked pretty low on the average person's "desired gadgets" list, in spite of their cost-saving benefits.
But thanks to the vision of former Apple executive and iPod hardware designer Tony Fadell, the humble programmable thermostat is suddenly one of the coolest and most in-demand gadgets around.
And it all started because Fadell thought traditional programmable thermostats simply, well... sucked.
"What was wrong with them?" Fadell lamented in a Wired interview, recalling his initial difficulty trying to find a great thermostat to install in his green home in Tahoe. "They were ugly. They were confusing. They were incredibly expensive. They didn't have half the features you would expect for a modern thing. I was like, Why is this?"
Well, apparently, there were a number of reasons. One, thermostats hadn't changed in decades. Quite literally. The Atlantic noted that the last "iconic" thermostat prior to Fadell's NEST was designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1953.
Second, conventional programmable thermostats were generally made by large companies with no incentive to innovate, since their clientele was largely made up of contractors and HVAC wholesalers, not consumers. That meant they were not only ugly but highly non-user-friendly-- "programming them was reminiscent of getting a 1970s VCR to tape a football game," Wired commented. Studies also revealed that many homeowners didn't even know how to use their thermostats, costing them hundreds of unnecessary energy dollars a year.
Enter Fadell, with his shiny Apple credentials and passion to finally build an easy, automatic and aesthetically pleasing thermostat that would ultimately save energy, money and the world.
In Fadell's vision, a thermostat could be so intuitive and delightful that saving energy was as much fun as shuffling an iTunes playlist, and so good-looking it would be a "jewel on the wall" of one's home.
Though the idea itself was noble, many -- including his wife, Dani -- were dubious about one of the most sought-after talents in the world of gadgetry taking on a home thermostat as his newest (and most heavily anticipated) project since leaving his VP post at Apple. But Fadell wasn't fazed for a second about his transition from iPods and iPhones to thermostats.
"You know, I got to live the dream twice," Fadell explained to TechCrunch. "[You don't want to] go and do the same thing over. I got all the typical calls from all the competition, there is no way I'm doing that. This was such an intriguing problem and it was just different than what I've done... So it just became a natural, like, 'We need to do this.'"
And we're glad he did because now, thanks to Nest, saving energy is so sexy that the device's first production run is completely sold out. (More are on the way in early 2012.)
Consumers who managed to snag a Nest Learning Thermostat got a sleek-looking, glowing orb, shaped like a slightly domed hockey puck and bearing the clean simplicity of an Apple product. When the air-conditioning is active, the screen glows a crisp blue. When the heat is on, it's orange, and when nobody is nearby, it discreetly fades to dark. Encased in an elegant loop of reflective stainless steel, it's been universally dubbed the "iPod of thermostats." For a closer look, see the video below.
Looks aside, its functionality is hard to beat. Controlling the temperature is as easy as rotating the outer ring; the device even lets you know how long it will take for your house to reach the target. Away from home? No biggie. The Nest includes WiFi connectivity, so you can adjust the temperature online or via a smartphone app from just about anywhere.
Best of all, the Nest will learn your family's schedule and preferences in approximately a week -- and start automatically turning down heating and cooling when you're away in order to conserve energy.
What's the bottom line for homeowners? Well, despite its relatively high price -- the Nest retails for $249 -- Fadell promises that it will ultimately save users up to 30 percent on energy bills. At that rate, the Nest could very easily pay for itself after a year or two.
(For all you geeks out there, see a technical teardown of the Nest thermostat here.)