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Nest's Tony Fadell on reinventing the smoke detector -- and your home (Q&A)

Nest is tackling another part of the home, with the rollout of a smoke detector called Nest Protect. Dull stuff? Hardly. It's all about changing the way we live, the CEO says.

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Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
7 min read
Can a Nest thermostat be as exciting as the iPod?
Watch this: Can a Nest smoke detector be as exciting as the iPod?

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Tony Fadell, the man who is making home thermostats, well, cool, is at it again, this time with the release of Nest Protect, the company's "smart" smoke detector.

Fadell, the founder and CEO of Nest who once ran Apple's iPod division and was part of Steve Jobs' inner circle, is trying one by one to reinvent devices around the house that, as he puts it, are "unloved."

I met with Fadell at Nest's headquarters here, to talk about Nest Protect and where the whole connected-home movement is going.

The Nest Protect. Click on the photo for our hands-on. Lindsey Turrentine

Question: First off, Why smoke detectors?
Fadell: Why not smoke detectors? Why hasn't there been any innovation since the '70s in smoke detectors as far as I can tell? They look basically the same. They do basically the same thing. And they annoy you the same as they did the '70s when I was growing up. You know, they beep at night. They'll beep and go off when you're cooking, when you're taking a shower.

When you look at these things in a product that's mandated in every single state in the union, and you have to have three or four of these per home at least. Why hasn't there been more innovation in this area? Why hasn't there been something that doesn't wake you up in the middle of the night when the battery is low? It just seemed totally obvious to us.

Nest Protect costs $129 each. That's not cheap. Who are the customers?
Fadell: If you think about a combination of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, today in the marketplace they're $69, $79, $89, somewhere in that. So we said, "Let's try to make the product as best as we possibly can -- really reinvent the product." When you do that, you're going to ... add different types of technologies to it. And we think that $129 is a great value base price. If I could have made it cheaper, I would.

Nest Protect looks unlike any other smoke detector (pictures)

See all photos

Who are your current customers for the thermostat?
Fadell: Our customers today are in all 50 states. They're in Canada, every province. There are actually 90 countries where we don't even sell our Nest learning thermostat. ... None of our retailers ship them there. So people either come to the US and take them somewhere, into their home country, or they actually go on eBay and find some gray marketer who does that. So it reminds me a lot of the iPod days and the iPhone days, the early days when they weren't available in those countries, people came and sought out the technology and brought them to their home country.

You brought up the iPod. It's still a little bit unimaginable to me to compare the devices. Is this that exciting, that big, to you?
Fadell: Absolutely. Look, we're talking about revolutionizing yet another category that you interact with at some point in your life or is part of your life. ... We are passionate about ... thermostats, and we're passionate about smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Why? That's what it takes to reinvent categories. You need to have the passion. This isn't just about business. This is about changing our lives and changing your lives to make it better.

Nest's Tony Fadell at his office
Nest's Tony Fadell at his office CNET

You recently opened up an API. What do you expect to come from that?
Fadell: We're in the process of opening up software libraries to get people to get access into the thermostat and now Nest Protect to allow them to do what they would like to do with it. So we're waiting and we're looking for ideas, so if they come to nest.com/developer they can fill out a form and tell us what they'd like to see.

It reminds me, again, very much of the iPod. We added a 30-pin connector a few years after we brought out the iPod. We didn't know what people we're going to do. It was simply for charging and for data. But we made the interface so that it's expandable by third parties. The same thing goes here. And now today, how many different things use that connector. There's so many different products. There's an ecosystem around it. We hope the same is going to happen around the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect.

When you look around your house, are there other things that frustrate you? Where do you see this connected world going?
Fadell: I don't think everything that could be connected should be connected. So we have to look at key needs inside the home, and where key touch points are. A lot of people are creating new things, like, oh, we're going to put a tablet on a refrigerator. To me that makes absolutely no sense. You have a great interface with you at all times in your phone or your tablet, you take with you. Why put another one on a refrigerator that you have to maintain and update. It doesn't make much sense to me.

See also: Hands-on with the $129 Nest Protect smart smoke detector

So I think you're going to see other products get this connectivity for energy data, for convenience data. But it's not all going to have displays in your face. Just like Nest Protect, there's not a display there. It's about ambient information and bringing that information and combining it into an app like the Nest app, that you could see it, make sense of it and get data and information about it. It doesn't have to be there and be another flashy interface that you have to program or manage. I don't think that's the way. I think you're going to see many more products inside the home get embedded technologies, not necessarily in your face.

Take us to a bit more of the home of the future. Or even the car.
Fadell: It's not just about connecting the home or connecting things inside the car, but what about connecting the car and the experience of when you're in the car to what happens at home, and what happens at home back into the car. What about the music you're playing a certain piece of music in your car, you walk into the house, should that house be playing music? Those are the kinds of experiences, very, very different than what we're seeing today from what's deemed as the internet of things.

We need to think about the experience and raise it up from just worrying about connected things in the home. But let's connect your life and the experiences from one part of your life to the other part of your life.

Here's a weird one. How did you pick the voice for the smoke detector?
Fadell: We didn't just pick one voice. We picked five different voices. We picked American English, American Spanish. We picked French Canadian. We picked Canadian English and we picked British English. What was really important was to make sure we had a mother tongue version of the language.

So that actually it wasn't just about people understanding how the interface worked, and understanding the language or the tonality. But also, if there is an emergency, studies have shown that kids are more likely wake up through a mother's voice instead of a horn sound of a smoke alarm. So what we want to do is bring that mother's voice and that local tonality to the product. We auditioned all kinds of voice actors and did multiple recordings. ... We went through six, seven months of making the script right, finding the acting talent and then actually recording them, re-recording them, and then re-re-recording them.

How does Nest Protect work with the Nest Learning Thermostat?
Fadell: We want our customers not to just look at our products singularly. ... We want them to work even better together. So in the case of the carbon monoxide detector and the thermostat, what happens is ... the No. 1 cause of carbon monoxide leaks in a home are due to faulty furnaces. Something is broken in the furnace and carbon monoxide is leaking into the home. So what Nest Protect does, is if it detects a carbon monoxide leak, it tells a Nest Thermostat in the same home to turn off. So hopefully we get the No. 1 leak, source of the leak, in the home shut off right away.

What are the things from Apple that you've carried over to Nest?
Fadell: Apple was an amazing experience. And many of the people here are from there. And the biggest lessons we learned is about experience, right? It's all about creating experience. Not just a product experience, but a sales experience. How do you learn about the brand experience. About how people communicate the experience they have to their friends and family. You know, I learned before coming to Apple about how you could make a great experience in the product. At Apple, [I learned] how you sell it. How you package it. How you unbox it. All of those things were key to the experience, and what we believe we're doing here at Nest.