Google builds a ‘Nest’ for future of smart homes

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — When our Internet-connected gadgets
and home appliances all learn to talk to each other, Google wants to be
at the center of the conversation.
This imagined future is still a
few years away, but Google is already preparing with its $3.2 billion
acquisition of high-tech thermostat and smoke-detector maker Nest Labs.
surprise deal announced earlier this week will provide Google Inc. with
more tools to build a valuable hub for homes. It’s a world of
network-tethered toasters and tea kettles, or a so-called "Internet of
Things," that is destined to reshape society, experts say, in the same
way that smartphones have done in the seven years since Apple Inc.
unveiled the iPhone.
The research firm Gartner Inc. expects more
than 26 billion objects to be connected to the Internet by 2020, a
figure that doesn’t include personal computers, smartphones or tablets.
That would be a nearly 30-fold increase from roughly 900 million
Internet-connected things in 2009.
Google established itself as an
instrumental player in smartphones with the 2008 release of Android, a
free operating system that runs on more mobile devices than any other
piece of software. Now, the company is gearing up for the advent of the
smart home with the help of Nest Labs, a 300-employee company started in
Palo Alto, Calif. less than four years ago. Tony Fadell, Nest’s
founder, is an Apple veteran who helped design the iPod and the iPhone.
influential as smartphones have become, their role in understanding
people’s habits and preferences could be eclipsed once everything in the
home has a computer chip and is connected to the Internet.
bought Nest in order to learn about this world where even more
information is going to be accessible by computers," said Forrester
Research analyst Frank Gillett.
Nest Labs quickly won over gadget
lovers with its 2011 release of an Internet-connected thermostat that
learns to cool and heat homes to suit the needs of the inhabitants. Late
last year, the company followed up with a smoke and carbon-monoxide
detector equipped with voice technology and the ability to communicate
with the company’s thermostat. Nest hasn’t said how many of its devices
have been sold, though analysts believe they are in just a small
fraction of homes. The products have only been available in the U.S.,
Canada and the United Kingdom.
Google hasn’t disclosed its
specific plans for Nest, but analysts anticipate an entire line of
Internet-connected home products will be coming to countries around the
world. Some of those Nest devices could be melded with existing Google
services in an effort to make people’s lives easier. Such a move also
would provide Google with the means to gather more insight that could be
used to sell the digital advertising that generates most of the
company’s revenue.
In a blog post about the Google acquisition,
Nest Labs co-founder Matt Rogers promised that customers’ personal
information will only be used for "providing and improving Nest’s
products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this
will not change."
But that pledge won’t preclude Google from
incorporating its services with Nest’s products, said Gartner analyst
Angela McIntyre. For instance, Google already makes a digital assistant
called "Google Now" that strives to learn what its users like and where
they tend to go so it can provide helpful information without prompting.
McIntyre believes Nest’s products will teach Google Now to become more
helpful so it can increasingly take over more of the mundane tasks in
people’s lives.
"They need to gather as much information as they can to understand the context in how we live our
lives," McIntyre said.
also could plug its digital mapping software into Nest products so it
could learn the layout of a home, said Brian Proffitt, a technology
analyst who is also a management instructor at the University of Notre
Dame. That knowledge could then be deployed to delegate such household
chores as vacuuming to a robot that would be able to rely on the
interior maps to navigate its way through an entire home without human
help, Proffitt said.
A Google division run by Android creator Andy
Rubin is working on various ideas for robots, though the Mountain View,
Calif., company hasn’t shared many details about its goals. Google’s
expansion into robotics is also being bolstered by a spate of
acquisitions that included the recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, a
U.S. military contractor that has already built a variety of
contraptions that can be programmed to run at rapid speeds, leap high
into the air and climb rocky terrains.
Even as it explores various
technological frontiers, Google still makes most of its money from
advertising tied to search requests. Acquiring and developing products
with Internet connections and environmental sensors can only help Google
get an even better grasp on people’s interests.
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