Innovate or be Disrupted

Feb 18, 2012

I’ve never shopped around for thermostats, nor do I know anyone else who has. However it sure seems that if there was previously a “must-have” thermostat out there, it would have made news before Nest Labs launched their product, the Nest Learning Thermostat, a few months ago.

If you didn’t know, the Co-Founders of Nest Labs previously worked at Apple on the iPod and iPhone. They’ve stated that their experience has shown that every detail matters – physical design, user interface, usability, packaging and marketing.

Their product is elegant, functional and has a purpose to help people save money.

Over a week ago, I read that Honeywell International is suing Nest Labs for infringement of seven thermostat tech patents. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Now, of course, I think companies have a right to defend their patents. But all of the infringement lawsuits going on between big companies are just sad (Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google… the list goes on). It’s a patent arms race to see who can stockpile the most.

The situation between Honeywell and Nest Labs is slightly different. Honeywell International has been around since 1906 and Nest Labs is a startup. It’s probably very difficult to consider oneself an “inventor” these days, but that is kind of what startups are.

Invention today is often tackling new problems or re-inventing the products and industries that are stagnant. That is what Nest Labs has done. They identified a stale product and completely re-defined it. Except for the most discerning, I suspect homeowners could care less about thermostats, or in the least only think about how distracting they look on their walls.

Although the latest Honeywell model does have some modern technology, it just doesn’t have the elegance of the Nest Thermostat. Honeywell had plenty of time to innovate, but didn’t. They didn’t design from a fresh perspective, only an incremental one.

Nest Labs has provided an option to have an eye-catching piece of gadgetry that supports an “eco-friendy” lifestyle and just might save some cash on the energy bill. Even with the question of “Did we need a new thermostat?” the Nest Learning Thermostat is the type of product that the gadget-minded wants to have.

Similarly, the Apple iPod wasn’t the first portable digital music player when it was released in 2001. I had previously owned a Diamond Rio PMP300 MP3 player around 1998. It was a piece of plastic junk that held about 12 MP3s. It and every other portable music player was left behind after the iPod launch. Everyone just wanted one, including me, even if it had less features.

The catchy term in Silicon Valley for re-invention is “disruption“. Startups often aim to disrupt a product or service that is tired. Bonus points if the objective is to do one thing and do it well.

What Nest Labs has done should be seen as an inspiration – not just for independent inventors, but all companies and industries that are complacent with their products and services, those that take no risks. This is your wake up call to innovate.

Nest Lab’s position that Honeywell’s lawsuit is simply a strategy to stifle competition comes as no surprise and I hope that they prevail. I know I’ve been jonesing for their product since its introduction — now I just have to order one.

Update 04.12.12: Nice! Nest Labs Hires Apple’s Former Patent Chief for Honeywell Lawsuit.

Update 06.21.14: Finally! installed our Nest Smart Thermostat at home. (I was waiting for 2.0!)