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Nest Bets That You Secretly Hate Your Smoke Detector


Nest Protect

Courtesy Nest

Nest Protect

Nest Labs seems to be on a mission to prove that it can turn anything into an iPhone (AAPL). A pleasing appearance, easy-to-use interface, early-adopter cachet, and boom—you can charge a huge premium for a product that almost no one had thought much about before. Even if it’s a smoke detector.

The device company is following its celebrated thermostat with Nest Protect, a smoke and carbon-monoxide detector that manages to raise a weird question: Why spend so much energy to reinvent a ubiquitous, adequate, and typically inexpensive household item?

Why not smoke detectors?” responds Tony Fadell, chief executive of Nest, in an interview with CNET. “Why hasn’t there been any innovation since the ’70s in smoke detectors, as far as I can tell? They look basically the same. They do basically the same thing. And they annoy you the same as they did the ’70s, when I was growing up.”

The Protect definitely solves the aesthetic issue—it’s much prettier than the average smoke detector—and it takes some steps to solve the irritation issue by speaking in a soothing voice rather than howling when its batteries are low.  You can wave your hand to shut it up without climbing on a chair because it has an embedded motion sensor.

But these innovations come at a cost of $130, four times the price of similar devices sold on Amazon (AMZN). To justify that price, Nest has to address Fadell’s complaint about the limited functionality of existing detectors. Does the Protect do more than basically the same thing as its cheaper, uglier predecessors? Fadell thinks it does. The device serves as a motion detector for Nest’s thermostat, which means that it can better learn your patterns of activity and adjust the temperature accordingly. If it senses heightened levels of carbon monoxide, it can turn off your furnace, which is often the cause.

Nest’s new smoke detector also communicates with your phone, reminding you to change the batteries, say, or alerting you when there’s an emergency. In this regard, though, it’s not even the most connected smoke detector around. The security company ADT (ADT), for instance, wires smoke detectors to communicate directly with its agents, who are probably in a better place to do something about it than you are when you’re away from home.

Nest’s thermostat came with the promise to lower energy bills and make your family more comfortable. While the smoke detector will offer a further small step toward fulfilling those goals, other devices whose main purpose would be to communicate with the thermostat might have been a better target. Fadell says he wants to reinvent devices for which people have no love. He argues that people really hate their smoke detectors. That may be true. But the opposite of love isn’t hate; its indifference.

Is it possible that people just don’t care about their smoke detectors? If that’s the case, the Protect is going to be a tough sell.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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