Debugger

How Google’s New Data Policy Ruined Nest

So much for an independent universe in the connected home

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

TThermostats are one of the few home devices that legitimately benefit from an infusion of the internet. Smart thermostats help reduce energy usage and automate away a bunch of banal tasks — no more leaving the heat on while you’re at work, for example.

Nest led the way with its first smart thermostat all the way back in 2011, and it sold itself with a simple premise: Make thermostats easier to use. Tony Fadell, the man who created the iPod, designed the Nest without fussy features, instead focusing on making it as easy to use as possible. The service was eventually acquired by Google in 2014 for $3.2 billion.

“Nest data that is not specifically restricted… may inform the ads you see.”

Now, just a few years later, Google is forcing Nest owners to make a choice: Merge your data with your Google account or forfeit new features. Nest owners are being asked to migrate their accounts into Google’s ecosystem, and holdouts will be blocked from receiving updates after this month. Initial reports said the change would break integrations with all of the big names in smart home — Amazon Alexa, Philips Hue, IFTTT, Logitech Harmony, Lutron lights, August Home, and Wemo switches — though Google backtracked to clarify that companies will be able to go through a security audit to replicate their services in the new “Works with Google Assistant” framework. Ultimately, though, it’s still unclear if any of these integrations will work as expected after the migration. (Google did not respond to a request for an update on any of these services and their fate after account migration.)

There are reasons for concern beyond busted integrations. For instance, my Nest data may eventually be used for ad targeting, which feels disconcerting. In the company’s FAQ about account migration, it states that “Nest data that is not specifically restricted… may inform the ads you see.”

Mourning Nest

As I find myself in the market for a new thermostat — I’m moving to a new home halfway across the world — I can’t bring myself to buy anything from Nest again. The story has changed too many times, it’s unclear where the products are headed next, and it isn’t playing nice with the wider smart home ecosystem. (There’s no support for Apple’s HomeKit, for example.)

Most of all, I worry about Google’s short attention span. I don’t trust that it won’t kill Nest’s older products on a whim, or simply pivot them again when it proves too much work to deal with them. It hasn’t exactly laid out an inspiring long-term vision.

But there are few alternatives worth considering beyond Nest. There are some decent ideas, from traditional players like Honeywell to the European alternative Tado, but they’re years behind in user experience and functionality. My experience with the latter was being baked alive in my own home because my internet went down — a situation worth avoiding.

Ecobee is the next most recommended smart thermostat, with a number of extra features like temperature sensors that come in the box, and it seems like the best choice in a crowded market of half-baked competition. Ecobee integrates with a huge number of other products, supports standards like HomeKit, works with both Assistant and Alexa, and has a good track record of maintaining products.

Amazon’s investment in Ecobee, however, gives me pause — it seems like a long play to eventually acquire the company, as it did with the smart doorbell, Ring. If Amazon did acquire Ecobee, I’d be back in the same data-sharing nightmare all over again.

The smart home is going to be stuck in this cycle for years as Google and Amazon plow millions of dollars into making Assistant or Alexa the platform of choice for connected devices. I’m left with little alternative but to choose a side. It’s a battle of the giants for all of the connected widgets in the home, with consumers caught in the middle.

What’s more concerning is being stuck in the middle of a transition. When a company like Google steps in, acquiring the maker of your thermostat, it has a different vision for the future of something you’ve already purchased. There’s little you can do about how that will play out, because the service is provided for free after you buy it.

When you’re buying today, how can you trust that Google won’t use Nest’s temperature or presence data for advertising in the future, or revoke features when it gets too cumbersome to maintain them?

All of this is a reminder about the reality of buying connected products: It’s hard to know what will happen to them in the future. By betting on a cloud-backed piece of hardware, you’re only licensing the ability to use it from its creator temporarily, and the functionality — or whether or not it’s spying on you — could change at a moment’s notice. The worst part? You might not even know it happened.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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