Nest Makes Its Move In The Smart Home

Developers, you have a new smart-home platform to play with. Google’s Nest unit has formally unveiled an API (see our API explainer) that will let independent programmers create new applications for the company’s smart thermostats and smoke alarms. Nest’s press release is embedded below.

See also: How A Little Competition Made Thermostats Sexy

The main idea behind the program is to let a variety of other devices—everything from smartwatches to smart lighting to smart cars—connect with Nest’s products to share data and act together more intelligently. They’ll do so by way of their apps, which developers can modify to use Nest API functions that, say, read data from one of its smart smoke detectors or change the thermostat temperature.

Nest actually announced the developer program last September; today just marks its formal launch. Here’s a list of the functions provided by the Nest API.

Some Ideas To Get You Started

That opens the door to a variety of new applications, some of which Nest is showcasing as part of today’s announcement. For instance:

  • Logitech’s Harmony Ultimate remote will let you set the temperature on a Nest thermostat without getting up from the couch;
  • The popular online service IFTTT—a way of programming new behaviors into your existing online services by combining them using the formulation “if this then that”—will now work with Nest, allowing new “recipes” such as “if my detector senses smoke, text my neighbors”;
  • Google’s voice-activated smartphone search will let you set the temperature by saying “OK Google” and issuing a voice command, while its Google Now personal assistant can tell Nest when you’re nearing home and have it start warming or cooling your home before you get there (Updated: see below);
  • Smart LED bulbs from the Australian company Lifx will flash red if a linked Nest Protect detects smoke, helping you see through the haze and even alerting hearing-impaired people who might not hear the alarm.

Not all of those applications may strike you as equally exciting at first glance. And while almost all of them are available immediately (a few, such as the Google services, won’t debut until the fall), it’s also worth noting that the products involved may not be in widespread use yet. It’s not clear, for instance, how many people currently own Whirlpool washers they can control with an app—which, by the way, will now coordinate with the Nest thermostat to schedule cycles around peak energy-usage periods.

See also: Nest Wants To Be The Hub Of The Connected Home

But these applications should give you a good sense of how Nest sees its future in the smart home—as a kind of traffic cop for other gadgets, one that leverages the data it’s collecting about residents to inform and work with other connected devices.

It’s worth noting that Nest officials don’t embrace the idea that their products are becoming “hubs” that connect and coordinate other devices, except in specific and user-friendly ways. “We’re building this symbiotic experience” between Nest’s gadgets and third-party devices, Greg Hu, director of Nest’s developer program, told me in an interview. “It’s not about a single side becoming the hub and controlling the other.”

Instead, Hu said, Nest wants to promote new applications that make life easier for people in straightforward and easy-to-understand ways that don’t ask too much of them. That emphasis on user friendliness and simplicity hews both to Nest’s roots in Apple (co-founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers both hail from Infinite Loop) and the spare design characteristic of its new parent Google.

Update, 8:30am, June 24: Hu emphasized to me that Google’s apps for the Nest use the same API as any other developer, and didn’t get any special access to data. Nest has also been clear that customers will need to authorize data sharing for apps that connect to its thermostat or smoke detectors.

This is contrary to the impression you’d get reading, say, this shoddy Wall Street Journal article, which hypes the notion that Nest will “share some user information with corporate parent Google for the first time since its February acquisition.” It’s technically true, but misleading in effect because Nest will share “some customer data” with any app developer whose users opt into the sharing.

Data, Data Everywhere

The data Nest gizmos collect on their households is central to making these new applications work. Its thermostat “learns” from the behavior of residents as they turn it up and down, eventually figuring out how to program itself. It will even turn down the heat or air conditioning when residents are away, a conclusion it will reach after a certain period in which no one adjusts the temperature and the thermostat’s built-in infrared sensors detect no motion. Nest’s Protect smoke detectors likewise carry eight different sensors, including four that detect movement.

And despite a recent setback for its Protect smoke detectors (including a product recall), Nest’s ambitions are clearly growing in this respect. On Friday, for instance, it acquired the home surveillance-camera maker Dropcam for a reported $555 million, providing it yet another platform for collecting data that can be mined and used in new ways.

Nest is careful to note that its privacy policy prohibits the sharing of that information without customers’ permission, including with its parent Google. Hu declined to comment on Dropcam, saying the company doesn’t yet have anything to add beyond its Friday blog post announcing the acquisition.

Battle Beyond The Hub

Nest, of course, is far from alone in its desire to infuse the smart home with some actual intelligence. Rival SmartThings recently launched a similar developer effort aimed at creating new applications that link together a variety of digital appliances, even launching a sort of app store you can browse for new features (albeit in a sort of convoluted way).

See also: Apple’s Ambitions Extend Well Beyond The iPhone—As In, To Your Entire Life

Crowdsourced product-maker Quirky is launching a new company called Wink to distribute its own software for connecting automated home gadgets; 15 companies reportedly have plans to launch 60 Wink-compatible products in July. And, of course, Apple is also testing the smart-home waters, having just announced HomeKit, another new software protocol also aimed at making a variety of smart devices controllable by “third party apps”—on the iPhone, natch.

Nest’s Hu said the company is playing a different game than its competitors. “Technology in the home is something we take seriously,” he said. “It’s about keeping things simple and easy to understand, not just connecting loads and loads of devices.”

Here’s the full Nest release:

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