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My battle with Nest: The poster child of the smart home revolution exposes its biggest problem

Sections: HVAC, Smart Home

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Auto ScheduleEven after 29 days, Nest still can’t figure me out.

My family recently bought an old home in desperate need of a new HVAC system. When I told our contractor we wanted a Nest installed, he laughed. Loudly.

“Luv,” he said. “Those things are more trouble than they’re worth. They have a mind of their own.”

“That’s the point,” I said indignantly. “They learn your schedule so you don’t need to program them yourself.”

He replied, “Well, I installed one in this place downtown and I’ve lost count of the number of times the guy has called me in the middle of the night saying it’s not working or it’s turned itself up, or off, or just plain gone crazy.”

I rolled my eyes; clearly his previous customer is not a tech savant as I am.

“Don’t you worry,” I said. “I won’t be calling you in the middle of the night.”

Famous last words.

Despite my job as a technology journalist, Nest is actually the first piece of home automation technology I have installed in my own home. The experience has shown me an intrinsic problem with today’s smart home: It is being designed for dumb people.

Manufacturers are trying so hard to make their devices as simple as possible to use that, in some cases, they are actually hampering functionality. That’s fine in a smartphone or some other gadget that doesn’t impact the actual health and well-being of your family, but when it comes to the home, I need to be the king of my castle.

Trying to appeal to the mass market — the consumer who doesn’t know Raspberry Pi from raspberry jam — may be crucial to the long-term success of the platform, but when the smart home isn’t quite smart enough and the dumb homeowner is a little too clever, it can get sticky.

So it was for me and my Nest, with whom I embarked on a month-long battle for supremacy, from which we both emerged a little bruised, a lot hotter, and much smarter (well, one of us, at least). If our dance were to be transformed into a two-man show, it would sound something like this:

Day 1

Me: Nest, so pleased to meet you. I can’t wait to see how you suss out our schedule — a paramedic who works 24-hour shifts and a freelance journalist who doesn’t even know her own schedule. It’s going to be a real challenge.

Nest: No problem! Just tell me some of your most intimate details, type in that 25-digit WiFi code AT&T kindly left you with by twiddling my dial back and forth a million times, and we’ll be set for a lifetime of happiness and cool climates.

Thermostat Added

Day 2 – 6 p.m.

Me: Nest, according to your dial and my armpits, it’s 89 degrees F in here, and while your stunningly beautiful blue display is telling me you’re trying to get it down to 74 F, there is in fact no air coming out of the vents.

Nest: You see that giant hole the HVAC installers left in the ceiling, the one that goes right into your super-hot attic and is directly above me?

Me: Yes.

Nest: Well, I think that’s kind of throwing me off a bit. Not to mention sending hundreds of dollar bills straight out the roof. So I’ve done the smart thing and stopped trying to cool off a house I actually can’t cool.

Me: While I understand your position, I still feel the lack of air conditioning is contrary to your purpose in life. I’m diving into those settings and figuring out a way to get some cold air out of you whether you like it or not.

Text Msg

Day 2 – 11:30 pm

(Following a frantic late-night text message conversation with my contractor over why there is no air coming out of my vents, we conclude it’s Nest’s fault)

Me: Nest, there is simply no excuse for my bedroom to feel like a sweatshop. Give me some air conditioning!

Nest: *silence*

Me: Nest, are you there? Are you listening to me? Ah, I see you have now turned yourself off completely. And I am listening to the faint sounds of my contractor laughing uncontrollably. I’m now turning you back on and you’d better kick that incredibly expensive A/C system into gear or I will be typing the word’s “Honeywell” and “Lyric” into Google before you can say, “I was designed by someone from Apple…”.

Day 3 – 8 a.m.

Me: Nest, I appreciate the effort you made to actually work last night after I turned on every setting I could find inside your gorgeous, shiny circular body, but now you need to take control as I’m going out and my husband has absolutely no idea what to do with you.

Nest: You can count on me. Although for some reason I don’t display the time (that would be a really neat feature).

Day 3 – 1:15 p.m.

Text message from my husband: It’s like an oven in our bedroom! And there is water coming out of the A/C vent in the bathroom, and I think the Nest has turned itself off again…

Me: (whipping out the Nest app on my iPhone) Nest? Are you there?

Nest: Nope. I’ve turned myself off.

Day 4

Me: OK Nest, we may have got off on the wrong foot here. Perhaps you feel I violated some sort of thermostat privacy by mercilessly tweaking your settings and not trusting that you were in fact correct that my bedroom should be a balmy 85 F. I understand that the giant hole in the ceiling was a bit of a handicap, but can we move past this? I’ve fixed the hole and now it is your time to shine.

Nest: I’m ready, willing and able, Jennifer! Plus, I was just purchased by Google so violations of privacy no longer bother me.

Three weeks later

Me: Good morning, Nest. I know we’ve had our ups and downs, but I’m pretty sure I have told you I don’t like to wake up freezing cold. I live in South Carolina for a reason, so why does it feel like the North Pole in my bedroom?

Nest: Good morning, Jennifer. The fact that I am located in your hallway with no A/C vents anywhere near me means that I may be a little bit hotter than you are, so perhaps adjust me to be warmer than you want?

Me: But isn’t your whole reason for being that I don’t have to adjust you?

Nest: Well, you need to adjust me for the first few weeks, until I learn your likes and dislikes.

Me: It’s been almost a month. Have you not learned that I don’t like to freeze in the morning?

Nest: No. Might I suggest you set up the schedule you would like manually?

Me: Well that’s a super idea. But, hang on… why does that sound familiar? Oh yes, I know, because that’s what I used to do with my old programmable thermostat…

Today Nesty (as my son likes to call him) and I are getting along just fine. Yes, there were bumps in the road, but the ability to control my climate from anywhere at any time definitely sets Nest apart, and I’m excited about its future uses as I incorporate more home automation into my house.

However, it’s definitely the last time I leave my home in the complete control of a semi-sentient device. The home may be getting smart, but its human occupants still need to be smarter.

Jennifer Tuohy is a bona fide tech geekess who writes about consumer technology for eBay, where you can find your own semi-sentient electronic devices. Follow Jennifer on Google+ and at eBay.

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