Fadell still eager to reinvent moribund markets
The man behind the iPod is now reinventing domestic appliances
Tony Fadell: “A day doesn’t go past that we don’t think about our time at Apple.” photograph: dara mac dónaill
At the turn of the century, an ambitious young engineer started a two-month contract with a beleaguered technology company struggling to rekindle its glory days. He had eight weeks to design a brand new device in an area that the firm had no history in, and convince upper management that it was worth betting the company on. What he created in those eight weeks grew into the first iconic product of the 21st century. The eight weeks became nine years, and the next product he worked on revolutionised the computer industry almost overnight.
“We changed the world twice – I was very lucky,” says Tony Fadell of his decade-long spell at Apple devising the iPod and leading engineering on the iPhone. It is the sort of legacy that stands alongside that of anyone in the technology business, and it would be almost impossible to imagine how to follow it up with a second act.
But Fadell is not the sort of individual who is content to rest on his laurels, and with his new company, Nest Labs, he has been working to extend the design sensibility that he honed at Apple to a product category that has traditionally been among the worst designed products we are forced to interact with – the discrete pieces of technology we use in our homes on a daily basis, beginning with the thermostat and, recently, the humble smoke alarm.
It might seem that, compared to the iPod and iPhone, devices such as the thermostat and the smoke alarm are the least sexy devices one could imagine. But listening to Fadell, it sounds like the most natural progression of all.
“Before, we had portable CD players and MP3 players, and people were like ‘what are you getting into that for, it’s tapped out, there’s no money to be made’,” he says in a rapid-fire patter. “The same with the phone market. If I look at every single market that we went into, and then crushed, there’s a lot in common when you go to look at something like the thermostat: huge existing market, fully commoditised, with a bunch of entrenched competition, people don’t think you can reinvent the category at all. You go again with smoke alarms. I don’t believe the warnings. I’m like ‘Are you kidding me, that’s a great market for innovation. People see problems, I see opportunities. When people go it’s daunting, there’s no money in it, nobody really cares – perfect. Big market, nobody cares, no new technology has been applied, the competitors haven’t innovated for years. Let me in, sign me up.”
That eagerness to reinvent moribund markets is paying off handsomely. Two years ago, Nest unveiled a thermostat unlike any that had ever been seen before. There were no fiddly settings and inscrutable instructions, just a beautiful round dial and glass display. But it wasn’t merely a more intuitive, user-friendly thermostat – it was a net-connected learning thermostat with motion sensors, designed to optimise your home’s heating patterns based on your needs and habits.