Nest made a great thermostat, but that doesn't make Tony Fadell the oracle of the Internet of Things

By James Robinson , written on May 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Like a moody artiste tired of the hype, Nest’s Tony Fadell wants to leave the "Internet of Things scene" behind.

“I hate that term,” Fadell told Walt Mossberg on stage at the Code Conference yesterday evening, and like a message from the oracle on high, his sentiment was retweeted ad nauseam and covered breathlessly.

“The ‘Internet of Things’ is a term for this audience,” Fadell said, addressing a room understandably packed with tech insiders. “It’s not a term for consumers. People don’t buy things, they buy an application or product for a specific purposes. So when people ask that I say, ‘No, we’re not an Internet of Things’ company.”

It was a strangely offkey remark from Fadell. His company’s acquisition by Google for $3.2 billion was like a bathtub of gasoline thrown on the Internet of Things fire.

It was also pointless. And very defensive. Of course Nest isn’t an Internet of Things company. It makes a connected thermostat and smoke alarm. But these are part of the fabric of what we regard to be the Internet of Things, the much ballyhooed, still coming together trend of connecting up devices and appliances to try and open up new control and efficiencies.

A farmer may not describe himself as being in the food business, but he can’t deny he makes food.

Nest -- by proxy of timing and acquirer -- will always be permanently linked to the moment the idea of the Internet of Things went mainstream. It is to this current mania, what Jaws is to the idea of the summer blockbuster.

But yesterday Fadell seemed eager to walk it all back.

Maybe, this was motivated by just how much has happened in four months, at how much new innovation has broken out: connected cars, pets, security, locks, and yes, other thermostats. As I wrote this week, there’s a very real chance that the platform model, supplying consumers with an easy and open way to control all of their connected devices, is going to have much more traction and success longterm than Nest’s slow infiltration of the home.

Nest’s $3.2 billion sale to Google gave everyone the impression that Fadell and the Google overlords were playing a much bigger, smarter and longer game than any of us could comprehend. Maybe we’re just giving them too much credit. Fadell said that in the 14 weeks Google has owned Nest there had only been one meeting with Larry Page. The first real Nest news -- outside of Fadell’s continued and awkward protestations that Nest and Google will never, ever, ever share data -- has not been new and original hardware, but rather the hinted-at Dropcam acquisition.

Fadell’s claim to be just a humble hardware maker and attempt to disassociate himself with the Internet of Things seem like an acknowledgement of just how much a new ecosystem has set itself in place without Nest. Listening to Fadell talk yesterday, he was light on vision and big on cryptic hints. Nest was maybe investigating security, maybe looking at health and safety, or water conservation. He name dropped Elon Musk’s rethink of the electric motor for how Nest might go after “unloved categories in the home.”

Tony Fadell is a hardware visionary. He helped spawn the iPod and then started Nest. But creating a great thermostat doesn’t make him the oracle of the Internet of Things.

[Photo by kmeron]