Nest unveils its next deviceOctober 2, 2012: 9:00 AM ET
Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the creation of the iPod, is showing off a new version of his whiz-bang thermostat.
FORTUNE -- Steve Jobs often was misunderstood to be sui generis, which Latin students and overly fancy writers will recognize as meaning "of its own kind" or deriving from nothing other than one's own creativity. In fact, Jobs was a careful student of those who came before him. He greatly admired Edwin Land, for example, the founder of Polaroid, who was fond of staging grand mainstream product unveilings of his breakthrough scientific/commercial inventions. Jobs also studied and emulated the tactics of Walt Disney, who understood the value of creating a shiny, happy public image for his company that distracted observers from what went on inside his secretive business empire.
With that as context, it's fascinating to watch the next act of the career of Tony Fadell, the former Apple (AAPL) executive who oversaw the creation of the iPod, as he builds his startup, Nest Labs, with overt winks at the legacy of Steve Jobs.
Fadell summoned me to his unassuming Palo Alto office recently with the promise of news about his company, which late last year began selling the Nest "learning" thermostat. The Nest device, which Miguel Helft covered in Fortune, is a wireless-enabled thermostat that's controllable via iPhones or Android phones. It pays attention through motion and other sensors to what's going on in a house in order to better determine when to heat up and cool down the environment.
Nest got off to an auspicious -- and tumultuous -- start. Fadell says the company sold out its inventory right away, largely on the strength of sales from its own Web site. (He never has released sales figures, making it impossible to evaluate the accomplishment beyond his qualitative descriptions.) Despite providing customer service only in the U.S. and Canada, customers have hooked up Nests in 59 countries. (Nest knows this from signals emitting from IP addresses in users' homes.) It has gone on sale in Lowe's stores as well as on Amazon.com and Apple.com, both of which list Nest among the best-selling devices in their categories.
As for the tumult, Nest quickly attracted the attention of thermostat leader Honeywell (HON), which sued Nest (and Honeywell neighbor Best Buy (BBY), which was carrying the upstart thermostat in a few stores and on its web site) for patent infringement. The case is being litigated and is currently under a stay while the U.S. Patent Office examines the claims. Honeywell did succeed in making life difficult for Nest at Best Buy, which removed the devices from its site and hasn't expanded beyond the test stores.
The sparring with Honeywell did little to dampen Fadell's enthusiasm. When I sat down to meet him recently, the table between us contained an object covered by a purple cloth shroud, which Fadell pulled back when he was ready to talk about Nest's second-generation thermostat. It was a signature Jobs moment, though Jobs favored black shrouds for everything from casual encounters in his private conference room to Apple demos at Macworld.
Fadell's homage to Apple and Jobs goes beyond theatrics. The new Nest, which replaces the old Nest and still sells for $249, is thinner ("20% thinner," Fadell says), one piece of stainless steel rather than two, has more connectors than the first version, and even has a neater back side. This last bit is a nice nod to the Jobs obsession with the inside of the early Macintosh, the part consumers wouldn't see. The back of a Nest goes up against the wall. Get it?
Nest's software is new too. It will now support Android tablets, in addition to Android phones as well as iPhones and iPads. Nests will soon speak French and Spanish, in addition to English. The beauty of a wireless device is that current gizmos will receive the latest software automatically, which also sounds familiar.
Fadell, who has a broad and infectious smile and tends to speak wistfully about the early days of the iPod, when Apple was a humbler company, deflects a question about whether or not Nest has home-appliance categories in mind beyond the thermostat. "It took five years of iPod before we considered the iPhone and another two years to build it," he says.
Steve Jobs used to change the subject too when asked about future Apple products.
In Inside Apple, http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Apple-Americas-Admired---Secretive--Company/dp/145551215X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1326775700&sr=8-1 Adam Lashinsky wrote about Tony Fadell as the only former senior Apple executive to achieve early success with a completely new startup.