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智能恒温器:iPod之父回归之作

Miguel Helft 2011年11月01日

他帮助苹果开发了大受欢迎的iPod和iPhone。现在他卷土重来,奉上了截然不同的新成果——智能恒温器。

 

    托尼•法德尔过去曾让质疑者们大跌眼镜。10年前,法德尔构思并帮助制作出了一款漂亮的小玩意,并将其推向市场,不过当时许多分析师不以为然,纷纷表示这款新式高科技“玩具”离普通大众的生活太遥远。结果,这个预言不幸荣登科技史上最悲催预言排行榜。法德尔的iPod销量超过3亿部,而且仍然没有停下前进的步伐。它彻底改变了整个音乐产业。

    法德尔如今被誉为“iPod之父”,他希望这次能再次让质疑者们闭嘴。法德尔曾领导团队成功开发iPod并在iPhone开发中起到举足轻重作用,不过2008年,他从苹果(Apple)的管理职位上辞职。过去两年,法德尔一直在辛勤工作,秘密开发一款新的电子器件。和iPod类似,这款新玩意也是通过简单的拨号盘控制。当然,和iPad一样,它也会遭遇怀疑者们铺天盖地的质疑。因为这毕竟只是一款恒温器。

    不过如果说iPod是一款非凡的音乐播放器,那么由法德尔带领的新创企业Nest Labs打造的这款恒温器也必定非同一般,和普通美国人家中用于控制供暖和空调的单调塑料小玩意肯定大不相同。Nest恒温器于10月25日发布,有望在今年11月中旬上市。首先,它的外形设计非常优雅、简洁,法德尔在这方面延续了他替前老板史蒂夫•乔布斯打工时掌握的手艺。更为重要的是,一如iPhone让手机实现了智能化,Nest则希望赋予恒温器以智慧:它能按照用户的生活习惯和设定的温度进行自我编程。它能不断改进自己,根据用户的出入进行温度调整;用户外出时,它还能自动关闭。

    法德尔称Nest的设想来自苹果。当初iPhone的设计理念并不是一部智能手机,而是一台可以打电话的电脑。Nest在帕洛阿尔托市的办公室并不起眼,最近法德尔在此接受了采访。他说:“这并不是一部捆绑了很多通讯功能的恒温器,而是一台电脑兼通讯平台,不过在此之上附加了一些恒温器的功能。”它可以帮助人们减少能源支出。

    Nest恒温器缘起于法德尔对现有设备的失望。法德尔曾在塔霍湖畔修建了一幢节能房屋。当时,建筑师向其请示恒温器选择,他拒绝了所有提议。法德尔表示:“应该有更好的选择。”恒温器控制着建筑大约50%的能耗,但这些年来,这些装置并没有多大改进。数百万家庭仍在使用手动恒温器。高级的可编程恒温器很难使用而且需要不断配置。“如果想实现节能的目标,就必须不断地给恒温器编程。”

    法德尔决定带领来自苹果、互联网语音技术公司General Magic、数字媒体设备公司Sling Media和电视服务商Web TV等公司的精英们自行设计和开发Nest恒温器,他还得到了凯鹏华盈(Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers)、谷歌风投(Google Ventures)等公司的资金支援。Nest恒温器的外包装盒非常精美,安装起来也很容易。它的售价为249美元,将由百思买(Best Buy)等电子产品零售店直接出售给消费者。在最开始的一周,它需要手动调整。不过此后,由机器学习方面专家所设计的算法就能接班,开始自动设定温度。这些算法会在用户每次手动调整温度时进行自我学习。恒温器上的传感器会不停监测温度、湿度、环境光以及设备周边和房间里远离设备的其它动静。法德尔表示:“我们能够发现房间里是否有人。只需一周,我们就能了解用户的日常作息习惯和温度喜好。随着时间推移,我们会不断自我适应。”

    调整Nest恒温器的温度非常容易:只需将恒温器的外圈向上或向下旋转即可。点击显示屏,会出现直观的菜单。恒温器还能连接到屋内的Wi-Fi网络中,用户可以使用手机或平板电脑进行远程遥控。通过PC和移动平台的应用程序能监测能源消耗和节能情况。法德尔称只需要大概一年,Nest恒温器就能让购买者从节能费用上收回购机成本。

    虽然Nest恒温器的市场定位瞄准以iPhone为代表的新生代早期采用者,但法德尔称潜在市场非常宽广。美国家庭目前使用了1.5亿个恒温器,而小型办公室和商业区也使用了大约1亿个。每年约有1,000万个新的恒温器被售出。法德尔表示:“这个销量和美国市场自行车的销量相差无几。”

    法德尔也许没错。不过人们愿意为自行车掏钱,而且许多爱好者会花大价钱购置自行车以相互炫耀。那么恒温器呢?恐怕未必如此。因此Nest的未来真是很难预测。

    尽管如此,法德尔还是计划继续开发恒温器之外的东西。就像Nest(意思是屋、巢——译注)公司名字所预示的,该公司将继续致力于家居产品。法德尔表示:“恒温器是我们第一款产品。我们希望开发出更多的产品。家居用品市场缺乏创新,我们可以将设计天赋投注到更多恒温器以外的设备上。”

    译者:项航

    Tony Fadell has defied skeptics before. Ten years ago, when a slick gadget he conceived and helped to build hit the market, most analysts shrugged, saying the new tech toy would be irrelevant to most people. The prediction ranks among to top bloopers in the history of tech punditry. Fadell's gadget, the iPod, sold more than 300 million units and, in the process, revolutionized the music industry.

    Now Fadell, who has been called the "father of the iPod," is hoping to prove skeptics wrong one more time. After leading the team that built the iPod and playing a key role in the development of the iPhone, Fadell left his executive role at Apple (AAPL) in 2008. For the past two years, he has been hard at work quietly building a new electronic gadget. Like the iPod, it is controlled through a simple dial. And like the iPod, it's likely to be greeted with skepticism. It is, after all, a thermostat.

    But if the iPod was no ordinary music player, the thermostat built by Nest Labs, Fadell's startup, is nothing like the drab plastic devices that control heating and air conditioning in millions of American homes. For starters, the device, which is being introduced on Tuesday and will be available in mid-November, has the kind of elegant, minimalist design that Fadell learned while working for his former boss, Steve Jobs. More important, just like the iPhone made cellphones smart, Nest wants to bring intelligence to thermostats: the device programs itself based on your daily routines and the temperatures you set. It constantly refines itself, senses your comings and goings to adjust accordingly, and automatically turns itself off when you are away.

    Fadell says Nest was built on ideas that he learned at Apple, where the iPhone was conceived not as a cell phone with smarts, but rather as a computer that could make phone calls. "This is not a thermostat with a bunch of communications features," Fadell said during a recent interview in the company's unmarked offices in Palo Alto. "It is a computer and communications platforms with a little bit of thermostat." And it is designed to help people cut their energy bills, he said.

    The idea for Nest came out of frustration. Fadell was building an energy-efficient home near Lake Tahoe. When his contractor showed him his thermostat choices, Fadell balked. "There has to be something better," he said. While thermostats manage roughly 50% of a home's energy use, they haven't changed much in years. Millions of homes are stillequipped with manual thermostats. The more advanced programmable thermostats are difficult to use and require constant adjustments. "If you want to do any kind of energy savings, you are programming them all the time," Fadell says.

    With a team of veterans from Apple, General Magic, Sling Media and Web TV, and with financing from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Google Ventures (GOOG) and others, Fadell set out to design and build the Nest thermostat. The device, which will be sold directly to consumers at electronic stores like Best Buy (BBY) for $249, comes in an elegant box and is easy to install. In the first week, it relies on manual adjustments. But after that, algorithms designed by machine learning experts, set the temperature automatically. Those algorithms refine themselves every time you manually adjust the temperature. Sensors constantly monitor temperature and humidity, as well as ambient light and activity near the device or farther away in the house. "We can see if there is anyone in your home," says Fadell. "We learn your schedule and your temperature preferences over a week. And we adapt continuously over time."

    Adjusting the Nest thermostat is easy: you simply rotate the outer ring up or down. Pushing on the display opens a set of intuitive menus. It also can connect to your home's Wi-Fi network, allowing you to control it remotely from a phone or tablet. PC and mobile apps allow you to monitor your energy use and savings. Fadell says that energy savings will help buyers recoup the cost of device in about a year.

    While the Nest thermostat is clearly aimed at early adopters in the iPhone generation, Fadell says the potential market is large. There are some 150 million thermostats in American homes and another 100 million in small offices and businesses. Every year, some 10 million new units are sold. "That's as many as bicycles are sold in the United States," he says.

    That may be true. But bicycle are toys that people love to play with and many fans will pay good money for bicycles they can show off. Thermostats? Not so much, which makes it all the more difficult to handicap's Nest future.

    Regardless, Fadell plans to push his company beyond thermostats. As the name Nest suggests, the company will continue to be focused on products for the home. "It's our first product," he says. "We have ambitions for more. There is a lack of innovation in the home and we can apply our design talents to things other than thermostats."

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