At Apple, Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers led teams that created the iPod and iPhone, displaying a knack for transforming the utilitarian and functional into sexy and desirable.
Now, the two former Apple engineers hope to perform a similar alchemy with a device even more banal than a cellphone or music player -- that beige lump of plastic on the wall called a thermostat.
After more than a year in an Apple-like shroud of secrecy, their Palo Alto, Calif., startup, Nest, emerged from stealth to announce a product that Fadell and Rogers hope will be so irresistibly cool that consumers actually will flock to save energy.
For starters, the $249 Nest Learning Thermostat isn't plastic, but a circular brushed stainless steel device, with a rotating outer control ring somewhat reminiscent of the iPod's control wheel. It is attractive and compelling to touch, and can connect to the internet through a home Wi-Fi system, allowing it to be controlled by iPhone or Android smartphone apps.
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The thermostat "learns" your household habits through a combination of sensors, machine learning and cloud computing, meaning that if you typically get up at 7 a.m. and turn up the heat, before lowering it when you leave for work, the thermostat soon will learn to mimic that routine automatically.
What Nest says is the world's first "learning thermostat" has the onboard computing power of an iPhone. When users pick a setting that uses less energy, a green leaf icon pops up in the display -- a sort of reward for good energy behavior.
But what hooked Google Ventures, which provided money along with venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Al Gore's Generation Investment Management, is that however humble and ugly, the thermostat is the epicenter of home energy consumption. About one-third of annual U.S. residential electrical consumption, and 86 percent of residential fuel oil use, is used for heating, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. An additional 21 percent of residential electricity use goes to cooling homes.
"If you could have one of these in every living room in America, you could save the U.S. 3 percent of its energy consumption, and that would be a profound impact," said Erik Charlton, Nest's chief of sales and marketing.
While programmable thermostats have been around since the 1970s, Nest's founders say no one has done anything revolutionary to improve them for decades.
Nest says its learning thermostat can cut home heating and cooling use by an average 30 percent over a standard thermostat.
Fadell, Nest's co-founder and CEO, was an adviser to Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Then Fadell quit Apple in early 2010, wanting to make a thermostat that would be beautiful as well as functional. As with Apple products, design was crucial.
"You can buy a beautiful refrigerator; you can buy a beautiful stove; you can buy a beautiful vacuum cleaner, but you can't buy a beautiful thermostat," Charlton said.
Nest started in a Palo Alto garage about 18 months ago, before quietly taking offices in a Palo Alto shopping center. Explaining Fadell's zest for secrecy -- Maris said he was forbidden from uttering the word "Nest" during the past year -- Charlton said, "We wanted a focus on the product and the team. Tony said, 'Let's not go out and talk to people; let's just build a great product.' "
At Apple, Fadell led the teams that developed the first generations of the iPod and iPhone, and is generally credited with the idea of linking a digital music player with an online music store -- the concept that became Apple's iPod and iTunes. Rogers, Nest's other co-founder, oversaw iPod software development from concept to production. The Nest team also includes Yoky Matsuoka, the vice president of technology, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who formerly was Google's head of innovation.
The Nest thermostat can be seen at store demos at Best Buy and can be bought on Nest's website (www.nest.co), and has been in tests during the past year.