Reinventing the mundane: Soma starts with water

By Richard Nieva , written on December 19, 2012

From The News Desk

When Tony Fadell released Nest Labs' first product in October of last year, many in the tech world saw it as an, er, interesting move. The father of the iPod – one of the coolest, sleekest inventions of the young millennium – had chosen a follow up act. And it was…a thermostat. Thud. You can’t stand in front of a fluorescent backdrop and dance to indie music on a thermostat.

But, you can save on your energy bill and scrutinize your heating habits with it. It was a sign that the iPod generation was growing up and, God willing, becoming homeowners. And so Fadell joined in a tradition of reinventing the domestic product – a path that people like James Dyson took before him, when he reinvented the vacuum.

Steeped in that tradition comes Soma, a company that aims to reinvent the water filter. The company has already gotten a lot of buzz in the tech press, after reaching its $100,000 Kickstarter goal in 9 days, with 1,707 investors as of this writing. The product is a high-end, hour glass-shaped water carafe with a white purifying filter. The company clearly has Brita in its crosshairs.

“These are things we rely on everyday,” says cofounder and Chief Executive Mike Del Ponte, referring to seemingly mundane household products. “Nest really pushed that economy forward.” To that end, he points to something even more basic than household products.  “Water is the essence of life,” he says. “Why not give it a really beautiful package?”

It’s the same mentality Nest had, and ditto with the beautiful package – a sleek, silver hockey puck-shaped item. And Fadell’s target is no less elemental: Heat is to water as Nest is to Soma.

A large part of this wave of reinvention is injecting the Web into every crevice of the household. Marc Andreessen famously said, “Software is eating the world.” It’s a line that we in the tech press spout off all the time. Nest uses software to learn a user’s heating and cooling habits. Lockitron, which plans to ship in May 2013, lets you lock your door remotely with an app and hardware. Soma plans to introduce software that will let a user do things like see how much money they are saving by shunning bottled water. “We’re starting to merge hardware and software. Nest has been the best example of that,” says Del Ponte. “Eventually, every physical product is probably going to have some sort of software tie in.”

David Beeman, who developed the water formula for Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee & Tea, designed Soma’s water filter using burnt coconut. In designing the carafe, Soma took inspiration from Apple and Jony Ive’s minimalist approach – which is why the body has no handle.

It’s significant that the product Soma is trying to displace is the Brita pitcher, which is not necessarily as core a household product as the thermostat or vacuum. Though that company has been around since 1966, the brand has only been distributed in North America since 2000. It’s a testament to how exponentially fast technology moves that this not-so-ancient technology is already being retooled.

It makes you wonder what other familiar items could undergo a reinvention – cosmetic or otherwise. This past July, I asked Fadell that question, and he pointed to in-car electronics. “They are absolutely abysmal,” he said. The root of the problem, he thought, is that traditional car companies have no sense of elegant user interface. “They’re trying, and they’re trying hard,” he said. “But car companies are not computer companies.”

That same day, in a separate interview, I asked a similar question to Yves Behar, founder of the design firm Fuseproject and Chief Creative Officer at Jawbone. Behar also mentioned cars, and said he was peeved by the aesthetic appearance of most automobiles. “Cars are not really designed – they’re styled,” Behar said. “And style is something that’s fleeting. Design is something that people will remember.”

Certainly that reinvention has gotten more pronounced since I spoke with them months ago. Shocking all the traditional car companies, Tesla recently won Motor Trend’s "Car of the Year." But it will be a while before every car on the road looks fundamentally transformed. For now, water seems like a good place to start.