Back in 2011, a company called Nest introduced a smarter thermostat, one that tracked heating habits, and had a touchscreen interface, and was WiFi-enabled so you could control it from your phone. By the start of 2013, they were shipping more than 40,000 per month. It was a high-tech update to a home appliance that nobody really thought needed an update. Sure, thermostats are a hassle at times but they weren't unbearable.
Now, the company wants to update another appliance that sits in almost every household: the smoke detector. On Wednesday, the company unveiled its version of the sensor, the Nest Protect, which can be turned off by waving, and delivers notifications in a speaking voice rather than a blaring dissonance. It also gives users a heads-up notification and small window to be shut off before going into full-blown alarm mode.
Trying to do for the smoke detector what they did for the thermostat makes sense for Nest as a company, but the case for upgrading isn't the same for both of them. For one, the thermostat is not an essential safety mechanism (although, those who have lived in New York City in the summer might disagree), while the smoke detector is. It leads to a few practical questions: When it comes to alerting someone to possible imminent danger, is it really better to ramp up the alerts than start at full blast? Are household smoke and carbon monoxide levels so unsteady that consumers need an app to monitor their levels? As BusinessWeek notes, the Nest lags behind smoke detectors wired directly to security companies that can alert the fire department.
Perhaps most puzzlingly, have smoke detectors really become such a nuisance that they are the new car alarm, as their alerts are mostly ignored? If statistics estimate that two-thirds of house fires occur in homes without working alarms or alarms without batteries, why is Nest even bothering to introduce a model that relies on batteries, just like older detectors?
Nest's thermostat is one of the most successful examples of what is commonly referred to as the "Internet of Things"—appliances that contain sensors and the ability to communicate their status digitally, often over a home network or the Internet. In addition to Nest, Philips has a line of WiFi-enabled lightbulbs that can be controlled via a smartphone, and there are washers and dryers with similar functionality. But until the Nest smoke detector, the Internet of Things has largely been a luxury (again, "WiFi lightbulbs"). Smoke detectors are a necessity, and the proposition of compromising the rare time one needs a smoke detector for the hundreds of times the device can be oversensitive is one that might not fly.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.