Nest Thermostat Goes From 'Internet Of Things' Darling To Cautionary Tale

from the benefit-of-dumb-devices dept

Back when the Nest thermostat was announced in 2011, it was met with waves of gushing adoration from an utterly uncritical technology press. Much of that gushing was certainly warranted; Nest was founded by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, both former Apple engineers, who indisputably designed an absolutely gorgeous device after decades of treating the thermostat as an afterthought. But the company also leaned heavily on the same media acupressure techniques Apple historically relies on to generate a sound wall of hype potentially untethered from real life.

Courtesy of marketing and design, Nest slowly but surely became the poster child for the connected home. Over the last year or so however things have changed, and while now Alphabet-owned Nest remains an internet of things darling, the unintended timbre of the message being sent is decidedly different. For example, Nick Bilton recently wrote a piece in the New York Times noting how a glitch in the second generation of the supposedly “smart” product drained the device battery, resulting in numerous customers being unable to heat their homes just as a cold snap hit the country:

“The Nest Learning Thermostat is dead to me, literally. Last week, my once-beloved ?smart? thermostat suffered from a mysterious software bug that drained its battery and sent our home into a chill in the middle of the night. Although I had set the thermostat to 70 degrees overnight, my wife and I were woken by a crying baby at 4 a.m. The thermometer in his room read 64 degrees, and the Nest was off.”

Again, that’s the poster child of the so-called “smart” device revolution failing utterly to complete a task thermostats have been successfully accomplishing for a generation. Other tech reporters like Stacey Higginbotham reported the exact opposite. As in, her Nest device began trying to cook her family in the middle of the night, something Nest first tried to blame on her smart garage door opener, then tried to blame on her Jawbone fitness tracker (Nest never did seem to pinpoint the cause). Her report suggests that an overall culture of “arrogance” at Nest shockingly isn’t helping pinpoint and resolve bugs:

“One Nest partner, who declined to be named to preserve his business relationship with the company, said that Nest being quick with the blame didn?t surprise him, citing a culture of arrogance at the company. When something went wrong during integration testing between his device and Nest?s, problems were first blamed on his servers and team.”

And fast-forward to last week, when researchers putting various internet of thing devices through tests found that the Nest thermostat was one of many IOT devices happily leaking subscriber location data in cleartext (with Nest, it’s only the zip code, something the company quickly fixed in a patch). Granted Nest’s not alone in being an inadvertent advertisement for a product’s “dumb” alternatives. In 2016, smart tea kettles, refrigerators, televisions and automobiles are all busy leaking your private information and exposing you to malicious intrusion (or worse).

It’s a fascinating, in-progress lesson about how our lust for the sexy ideal of the connected home appears to be taking a brief pit stop in reality, where sexy doesn’t matter if the underlying product, person or device remains inherently dysfunctional. As a result, dumb and ugly technology is poised to make a dramatic comeback.

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Comments on “Nest Thermostat Goes From 'Internet Of Things' Darling To Cautionary Tale”

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Ninja (profile) says:

As a result, dumb and ugly technology is poised to make a dramatic comeback.

Yes, please. Hopefully there will be offerings of dumb devices. I’m having trouble finding a non-smart, big TV.

Until security starts being the first thought I’m keeping any smart device I’m forced to acquire due to the lack of alternatives as dumb as possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m having trouble finding a non-smart, big TV. […] I’m keeping any smart device I’m forced to acquire due to the lack of alternatives as dumb as possible.

An alternative would be a smaller screen hooked to a computer. Somehow people have been convinced they need huge TVs, way bigger than existed in the 80s or were common in the 90s. I see 34″ monitors for under $500, bigger than the average family had not too long ago.

MrTroy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m sorry, but a non-smart small tv hooked up to a computer isn’t an alternative to a non-smart big tv. In fact, it kind of fails both requirements.

“way bigger than existed in the 80s or were common in the 90s”

You know that resolutions and picture quality have gone through the roof since then too? Don’t presume that everyone has the same requirements or circumstances as you, and will be happy with the same compromise.

@Ninja, I’m sure you’ll have already had advice, but for non-smart and big you could consider a projector. Quality, resolution, running costs have all improved over the last decade. I definitely feel your pain about near-complete lack of high quality large tvs without “smart” features.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Somehow people have been convinced they need huge TVs, way bigger than existed in the 80s or were common in the 90s”

For this to be an argument to make any sense, you not only have to account for why you’ve chosen those cut-off dates as anything other than arbitrary (screen sizes were also much smaller in the 60s than they were in the 80s, for example, should we return to those or do you have personal reasons for choosing those dates?) but account for why screens were that size (weight, cost and technology limitations made larger screens prohibitive or impossible before CRT technology was superseded). It wasn’t that people didn’t want these things, it’s that the technology to make them available to the average person didn’t exist yet.

I understand that for some purposes using a large monitor might make sense. But as a general argument, the one you have makes as much sense to my mind as wondering why people don’t want black & white square screens or VHS resolution when people used to be happy with them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m having trouble finding a non-smart, big TV.

This is one reason I’m using a projector as a TV, hooked up to a computer (Windows 7, so I still have the excellent-but-dead Windows Media Center).

But if any car companies come out with a vehicle that has only a single microchip (and that’s for the stereo), I’ll be first in line to buy it.

Until then, I’m enjoying my always-dependable, late-70s motorcycle.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

It is always the fault of the other guy.
Apple is always willing to blame others when they screw up… anyone remember the phones that hung-up when you held them wrong? Wasn’t a design problem it literally was you’re holding it wrong. Rubber bumpers for everyone and we moved on.

Image is everything and protecting that image is job #1.
The problem is the hundreds of examples we have in society now where protecting the image ends up being more important than anything else. See also: Cops, Courts, Justice System…

How do we break that mentality? Image matters but your image is leaps and bounds better when you focus on fixing the problem rather than expending so much energy finding someone to blame who isn’t you.
When your device has turned a home into an easy bake oven, no one gives a shit that it might be some other item on the network… they want it fixed quickly & prevented from happening when the next connected “smart” item is added to the fray.

Protip: Everyone is still human, they can make mistakes. The secret is to accept you can make a mistakes & fix them rather than wasting time looking for where you can assign blame.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But getting the the source of the problem is that much more complicated when you refuse to consider it might be your fault and not always the fault of an outside 3rd party.

Finding the source when you remove your device from consideration of being the problem for no reason other than you believe your own image hype becomes way more complex as the other guy has to check all of their things, then fight the uphill battle to get anyone to think it might be the perfect image item.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually getting the source of the problem right DOES matter.

Yeah, not sure that’s what he meant as such… I’ve been in exactly the same position so many times even with different teams in the same company…. Get a problem and the server guys instantly blame the network guys or the storage guys; the storage guys blame the server guys or the network guys; the network guys blame the server or storage guys… and everyone blame either the 3rd party software or the user.

The correct response to this is always “I don’t give a shit what you think it is, how about you stop making assumptions, work together and find out what it actually is!”

Added to that, even if some other device on the network is found to cause the problem it still doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem with the Nest; A number of times I’ve seen a device not cope with another device working perfectly because of it’s own problem… And this one’s supposed to talk to other things, so the answer is still “I don’t give a shit, try being part of the solution”.

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

Smart vs. Connected

The probem is not so much the smart part as it is the connected part. A programmable c.q. learning thermostat without WiFi is not leaking user data. You just have more work doing software updates.
The main requisite for me is Free Open Source software & hardware. Without either, I’m not switching, for both monetary and security issues.

Anonymous Coward says:


Other tech reporters like Stacey Higginbotham reported the exact opposite. As in, her Nest device began trying to cook her family in the middle of the night

It’s basically a quote, but still a ridiculous exaggeration. It switched to her summer air conditioning setting, about 24 °C, hardly “cooking” (there are people who keep their houses that warm normally).

Anonymous Coward says:


you sheeple are lining up for self driving cars. Imperfect man, imperfect machines, imperfect software. We keep making the same mistake in that we rush to put all our eggs in the same basket (the next big thing–>this time ‘the Internet of Things’), and repeat ad infinitum.

In other news, Trojan introduces WiFi enabled condoms. Film at 11.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: yet...

Hold up thar hoss…

The thoughtless security that goes into your thermostat is not equivalent to the security that goes into your self driving car.

Compound that with the idea with the chances that a failing thermostat are NOT likely to end yours or another persons existence causing huge financial penalties.

This means that there will be a much larger financial incentive for self driving vehicles to be secure. Now… whether we get actual security or “Congress” quality security IE, security theater… that will be up to the already mentally challenged folks of the general public and the next set of bought and paid for politicians they vote in.

The writing is already on the wall, “The People” want safety and security and they WILL drop every last fucking spec of self worth, decency,and EVERYONE’S liberty to get it. The politicians know this, and so does industry and they will be there ready willing and waiting to take us for every last thing we are stupid enough to give them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nest is a complete waste of money

completely absurd statement. I heat my house for about 3 hours a day – in the am and the pm. My heater runs for perhaps an hour/day vs probably 5 hours/day if I kept the house warm all day. It’s 3rd grade physics that keeping something warm over a long period of time is harder than warming it for two short periods. Also, my gas/electric bill reflects my reality, not yours.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Nest is a complete waste of money

Your anecdote may vary. Also, your insulation, outdoor temperature, comfort settings, and the thermal inertia of your house.

And if you’re kids are getting into BTU calculations, thermal inertia, and practical applications for special relativity in third grade, you’d best be watching out for Will Smith clones.

JBDragon says:

Re: Nest is a complete waste of money

All you need a a cheap Programmable Thermostat. You set it for your needs. When I was living alone, I’d set it to come on and warm up my place abut 15 minutes before I got off work as it would take that long for me to get home, and by then It would be warmed up. That really was only in the 65-68 range. I like the colder end, you can just dress a bit warmer and save on your bill.

So generally it was on between 4:45 PM to 11PM
In the Morning before getting out of Bed, I had it set to turn on for about 30 minutes with a 60 degree setting just to get the cold out of the air. I used a Electric blanket in bed to stay warm. The rest of the time I had it set at 50.

I’m in my small office at work right now and it shows 62!!! I can turn it up if I wanted, but I like to keep it at the temp of the main warehouse unless it gets to cold or to hot. Really that’s warmer then where most are working in Production area for food cooking where it’s around 48-50 generally most of the time.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re: Nest is a complete waste of money

Turning down the temp a little and not having it running as much if possible will do more good then a NEST. If course if you have a Baby in the house or young kids, you may not be able to get away with it so much, or even old people. I don’t think even in that case a NEST will save you very much. Let alone enough to pay for it’s self without changing your habits.

Anonymous Coward says:

But as a general argument, the one you have makes as much sense to my mind as wondering why people don’t want black & white square screens or VHS resolution when people used to be happy with them.

I don’t see how. A large monitor will have more pixels and the same aspect ratio as a good TV. The only downside I see is they’re smaller; but for someone who wants to avoid “smart” products specifically, it’s not an unreasonable tradeoff (like using a 20+-year-old TV would be).

The dates were right before LCDs became popular. Big TVs existed before then, and people wanted them but they were considered a luxury. The point is just that people don’t “have to” buy huge smart TVs, not that they wouldn’t be nice if done properly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

ha ha… the TV scene is a HUGE scam game.

with manufacturing technology as it is, it costs very little to produce a larger screen for viewing, yet you will be eye socket fucked for just looking at the difference in price for a larger screen TV.

I just purchased a new 55inc 4k TV (Vizio) for just $650. The cost of a 65 inch… is DOUBLE the cost! Just for 10 more fucking inches!

Now 4k is nice to use as a computer monitor and yes you do need to sit close to the TV even at 55 inches to be able to functionally use 4k that way.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

with manufacturing technology as it is, it costs very little to produce a larger screen for viewing

Do you have a reference for that?

I just purchased a new 55inc 4k TV (Vizio) for just $650. The cost of a 65 inch… is DOUBLE the cost! Just for 10 more fucking inches!

That’s about a 40% larger screen, and I just went on their web site and found the cheapest 55″ 4K for $700 and a 65″ for $1200, which is 60% more, not twice as much.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“A large monitor will have more pixels and the same aspect ratio as a good TV.”

…and have less TV-specific features, usually have less ports (especially those only relating to a TV and not a PC), require a computer to be attached, may lack features on the remote that people expect, etc.

“The only downside I see is they’re smaller”

The only downside to you. Other people have different needs and your setup may not match them.

“The dates were right before LCDs became popular.”

…which happened because they became cheap enough to be commodity items compared to a similarly sized CRT. LCD, plasma, etc. only took off when they became affordable enough to the average consumer for them to buy one.

“Big TVs existed before then, and people wanted them but they were considered a luxury”

sigh Why do you think that was? Because people didn’t want them or because they were so expensive? Obviously, it was the price. Guess what happens when the price goes down significantly on a “luxury” item? People buy more of them! If enough people do so, they cease to be considered a luxury item, as everything from fridges to cars did before them.

Do you get that now? Most people couldn’t afford big screens in 1985 or 1995. By 2005 and 2015, they could afford them easily, so they bought them.

“The point is just that people don’t “have to” buy huge smart TVs”

They don’t have to buy any TV at all. But if they’re in the market for them, they’ll buy the biggest and best their wallet can afford – and they’ll do that before setting up a PC with a smaller screen in their living room.

Look, I see you have your needs matched by a smaller screen monitor setup. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing as you. That’s fine, but it’s really not hard to understand why most consumers would prefer a 60″ TV to a 30″ monitor, even if they’d have killed for the latter when the USSR was still around.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re:

I see, another Apple hater. For a product that has nothing to do with Apple. Started by a couple ex Apple employee’s with the Original version. Acquired (OWNED) now by Google who has sense released a second generation version which is having issues.

Par of the course of Google releasing CRAP products!!! There, fixed it for you.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Par of the course of Google releasing CRAP products!!!

I don’t think I would agree with that. Most of their software seems pretty good to me, though the support is somewhere between abysmal and nonexistent, and they are often terrible at listening to what improvements people want. As far as hardware, I’m only familiar with the Android devices they’ve partnered up to make (have they done any other hardware besides the Nest?), and I think they’re pretty nice and I think have been generally well received. Certainly not widely regarded as “crap”.

GreatGreenGeek says:

Whoever sets their thermostat to 70 degrees heating at night is a damn fool with more money than sense. Add some blankets, wear some PJs, and set your home back to 62-65 degrees at night. It saves energy (and no, it doesn’t increase your water heater energy use).

Hell, people who buy the nest are still generally fools with more money than sense. Yes it’s pretty, but there are many other occupancy sensor enabled thermostats out there that match nest for function and efficiency (if not appearance).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is unbelievable to me how many people think this is true. The warmer it is inside, the greater the temperature difference, the faster the heat is lost. Letting the temperature drop reduces the temperature differential, and heat loss is slowed. Keeping that higher level of heat loss continuously will use more energy than only bringing the temp up when occupants are present and awake to “enjoy” the warmth.

Also, there is no amount of insulation (short of a perfect vacuum) that will eliminate all heat losses. If there is a difference of temperature, heat will always move to the cooler surroundings.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re right! 70 degree’s is crazy anyway. You shouldn’t have it more then 68. I don’t set mine higher then 65. If you’re cold, dress a bit warmer. If my Dad wasn’t living in my house I’d turn it down to 50 most of the time except when home and up.

I have a low voltage DC, Electric Heat Pad on my bed. Best thing ever. This is coming from someone who used to use Electric Blankets for years. Heat rises, it makes more sense to be on the bottom. Generally I only have it on the lowest setting. Climb in and don’t have that chill which you first get climb in.

From what I hear, Electric Blankets are big in the U.S. while in Europe heat pads are much more popular. Mine is DC powered, so there’s transformers. It’s much safer. The wires are very small. I can’t feel them at all. Had to get mine at Amazon as Stores don’t seem to sell them. You can find electric blankets around here.

Much better to keep warm this way then heating the whole house. My electric bill is high enough with all my gadgets, but I knew others with sky high bills I could never dream of being able to pay for. I’d be broke.

Anonymous Coward says:

There was a time when I was an early adopter. Willing to try new products that were new simply because I felt they would make my life easier.

I’ve had a new philosophy I’ve developed over time and am no longer one in the sense of buying the newly released gadget on the market.

This business with the thermostat illustrates why. Today I want something that just works, works all the time, and has no problems with just doing it’s function and nothing else.

I don’t want IoT devices. We have enough spies in government roles without the manufacturers getting into the act. I want no smart devices, AT ALL. Give me something that works time after time and doesn’t blab to high heaven you’re home.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

I've Always Hated Nest (Thermostat)

I saw it before it’s release, and stayed well away from it – but not for the reasons stated in this article, for different ones.

Though a beautiful design, and early to the “connected by wifi” thermostat camp, it has the common problem of trying to be “smart” but only going 85% of the way there.

“Smart” home devices are like speech recognition – until they are almost perfect, they suck. A thermostat that tries to predict your life will make countless mistakes. A thermostat that tries to know when you are home, but only senses presence in the hallway where your Nest is will make errors. So, yeah. It’s a “smarter thermostat”, but not smart enough.

OTOH, I bought three Nest connected smoke/CO alarms. Those are great. Battery lasts 8 years, gives you a monthly status report, and will alert you in advance if the battery needs a change. Funny to me that the shittier product is their marquee.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: I've Always Hated Nest (Thermostat)

A thermostat that tries to predict your life will make countless mistakes.

OTOH, my programmable thermostat always does exactly what I told it to do, every single time. Unlike the Nest, I didn’t have to spend weeks or months training it, I just programmed it and I was done. And it doesn’t leak any information.

SirWired (profile) says:

It's not even a very good thermostat

Apart from all it’s “Internet of Things” frippery, it’s not actually a very good thermostat.

It won’t work at all with many HVAC systems (and won’t use all the features of many others), the temperature control has too wide of a range, and of course it’s overpriced for what it does.

(Most people are perfectly aware of what time they wake up, go to work, come home, go to bed, etc… setting up a programmable thermostat isn’t THAT hard.)

Honeywell, on the other hand, knows how to make a quality thermostat. Even the low end electronic models keep a VERY tight grip on the correct temperature, unlike the Nest.

David says:

It's about critical life functions

The real problem here is Nest controls a vital function for the home. What if Nick Bilton and his family had been on vacation for the week? Their pipes would have frozen, burst and he would have come home to a house utterly destroyed by water damage.

What other smart devices will malfunction in the future? How about the fridge that shuts off and spoils all the food inside or the smart water heater that boils the water and scalds your child?

Smart TVs are one thing and while the security issues are important, no one gets hurt or experiences extensive damage when one doesn’t function properly.

As this so-called intelligence starts to seep into devices that play much more important functions in our lives, we better be think twice before using them.

JBDragon says:

Re: It's about critical life functions

I just had to replace my Hot Water Heater. Guess what It has the Smart Wifi thing for it. To me it’s almost pointless. I just don’t see a need to adjust the temp on my phone. Plus Vacation Mode? It’s my house. Not my Summer home which I leave in the winter. It’s also not hard to walk into the garage and turn the dial down anyway IF I had to.

It does have a water leak sensor and it’ll inform me of any alarm issues. It’s a 12 year warranty tank, so maybe around that time when I may start getting issues, maybe the App on my phone is still working, and the Wifi on the tank is still working and it just all happens to work, 8-12+ years from now!!!

To me for the most part is pointless. It of course has to plug into POWER. That’s a first for me, Not because of the Wifi part which is optional, but because it has a electric powered Damper on the vent that opens when it’s being heated and closed when it’s not. It’s a special one for where I live in California. Also more expensive, but at least it was one I could get the $200 rebate on before the end of the year. It’s Low NOX or something also.

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