Apple’s Nest

Google is acquiring Nest Labs, and since the news broke, most of the analysis I’ve seen has to do with why Nest might be worth $3 Billion to Google, and whether or not it’s a blow to Apple that Google bought the company before they could.

I agree with the folks who point out that $3 Billion is a hefty price tag for a small company that only sells home thermostats and smoke detectors. But I also agree with the folks who argue that the potential upside for Google could be huge. On the latest episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber and John Moltz cover many potential wins for Google: a proven consumer product expert in Tony Fadell, tens if not hundreds of talented engineers, and perhaps most importantly a team with a knack for delivering casual infometric devices to the masses.

For years, Google’s successful tack has been first inserting itself between users and their data, and then figuring how to best capitalize on that relationship. This approach pans out proportionally to the total number of users and to the amount and diversity of data being intermediated. As Google’s knowledge of people and their data grows, it empowers them to provide increasingly clever life solutions. It also empowers them to help themselves to what advertisers will pay for access to this very large, very well understood user base.

The products might seem to offer little to Google, but it’s easy to imagine how Nest’s knowledge could strengthen Google’s other services. For Maps? “Raise the thermostat in my home to 68F when I am 1 mile away from arriving at home.” Or for Gmail and Google Voice? “Do not disturb … unless there is an emergency at home.” It also seems reasonable to assume that Nest’s two shipping products are the tip of the iceberg and that Tony Fadell and his team have a long list of ideas for how their product line should expand in the future.

What does it mean for Apple that Google acquired Nest? Not much. Unlike Google, Apple has made a habit of staying out of the relationship between users and their data. Sometimes to a fault! For most of Apple’s products, knowing anything about the specific data that users are working with is at best an afterthought and more often a degree of involvement that the company has made a point of avoiding. What are your emails about? Apple doesn’t want to know. What kind of writing are you doing in Pages? Not interested. What are your favorite mapping POIs? They barely know where anything is, let alone whether you’ve been there or not. This is Apple’s flaw and it’s great, great asset: they care much, much more about the kinds of things than the specific things that people use their products to work with. Google is more interested in raw, specific data, while Apple is more obsessed with generalized ideas about data.

On that point, one reason I wouldn’t expect Apple to acquire a company like Nest is that the products are far too specific, far too niche. Apple doesn’t make very many specific things anymore. They make general tools and leave it to customers how they should best be used. In fact, over the past 10 to 15 years, Apple’s products are increasingly generalized, and more suitable to a wide range of uses (and customers) as the products become more refined.

Apple used to sell a countless variety of Mac models which are now more or less reduced to MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Minis, and the Mac Pro. Apple used to sell iPods for playing music, QuickTakes for taking pictures, and printers for … printing. Now they sell devices that double as music players, devices that double as cameras, and devices that extend the capabilities of 3rd party printers.

Apple’s Airport Express could be sold as a standalone Wi-Fi printer adaptor. Have a USB-based printer? Just plug it in to the Apple AirPrinter device and now it’s a Wi-Fi-connected printer. It could also be sold as a Wi-Fi music adaptor. Have a pair of powered speakers? Just plug it in to the Apple AirPlayer and let your tunes fly. But no, it’s sold as a Wi-Fi base station. A base station that happens to offer many features that are generally useful to a household with network-connectable devices.

In many respects Apple’s Airport Express is like Nest’s thermostat: a small form factor with built-in WiFi and considerable smarts. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the next version of the Airport Express featured a touch screen for interaction and feedback? During AirPlay broadcast of music to connected speakers the on-board display could show the album artwork, artist, and song title, as well as a convenient UI for skipping or favoriting a song. While printing documents it would reflect up-to-the-moment job status and offer a big, fat “Stop” button for canceling an unnecessary printout. And when it wasn’t doing anything in particular? It could show generally helpful information such as the current time, local weather, etc.

Given Apple’s history of expanding the functionality of the Airport Express, I wouldn’t outright reject the possibility that they might add a temperature sensor or smoke detector to the device itself. Or better yet, what if they announced a standard Bluetooth LE protocol for in-home instruments from any manufacturer to integrate seamlessly with Apple’s $99 Airport Express? That would be pretty great, and maybe at that point it would finally be time to come up with a better name for Apple’s Nest.