Model house and photograph by Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber for TIME

This Startup is Trying to Create—and Control—the Internet of Your Home

SmartThings at a glance Illustration by Martin Gee for TIME

Inside SmartThings' plan to revolutionize how we live, one connection at a time

Alex Hawkinson’s house knows how to make his day.

As the 41-year-old father of two gets out of bed, the lights flicker on and the air temperature starts to warm. He walks down the stairs, and a Siri-like voice greets him from his Sonos sound system: “Today’s forecast is …” By the time he reaches for his mug of coffee–it began brewing automatically–that woman’s voice has morphed into an NPR broadcast, and Hawkinson is checking his phone, which will receive a text if his 4-year-old son runs out the front door before breakfast. Should Hawkinson open the liquor cabinet, intentionally or not, his house will object. “Isn’t it a wee bit early?”

If Hawkinson has his way, every family in the U.S. will be living like this within the next decade or so. And it will be largely thanks to his company, SmartThings, which has built a first-of-its-kind platform that allows the objects in your home–doors, locks, lightbulbs, even sprinkler systems–to talk to one another and prioritize your needs. Its only requirements: a smartphone, a $200 starter kit (including sensors and a hub they sync with) and a wild imagination.

“We’re at the outset of this wave where … your home can give you security, peace of mind and more,” Hawkinson says. “Eventually, everything that should be connected will be connected.”

If this narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it is: companies have been promising the dawn of the smart home–a futuristic dwelling full of gadgets working seamlessly to satisfy your every whim–since the ’50s. Yet early efforts failed to deliver because of clunky tech and consumer wariness.

SmartThings, which launched in 2012, has arrived amid a legitimate sea change in home automation. In the past few years, the rise of cloud computing has made it easier than ever to build gadgets that connect to the so-called Internet of Things, meaning they can be monitored and controlled from afar, usually with their own smartphone app. There’s also been an uptick in the production of sensors and devices that enable you to smartify objects that are dumb. (Think plugging a desk lamp into an adapter controlled by your phone, or rigging a door with a motion detector that pings you about intruders.) By 2018, the research firm IHS Technology predicts, people will have installed 45 million smart-home services. “We’re really starting to see major volume here,” says Lisa Arrowsmith, an IHS associate director. “It’s an exciting time.”

But the race to make those gadgets and sensors work together has only just begun. Much as Google and Yahoo created search engines as a way to bring order to the Internet in the ’90s, startups and established players alike–including Apple, AT&T and Google–are now enabling you to command the Internet of your home. Whoever creates the most compelling platform will not only revolutionize how we live but also command a huge share of what’s expected to be a $12 billion annual business within five years.

SmartThings, though smaller and less resource-rich than the tech titans, is well positioned to lead the pack. Unlike bigger companies, it doesn’t have an established business model to protect, so it can reimagine the connected home from scratch. And unlike other smart-home startups like Revolv, it already has thousands of civilian developers working to make novel apps for the products it connects–enabling you to make your speakers bark, for example, if your cat jumps on the kitchen table.

But to go mainstream, SmartThings and its rivals will have to convince a lot of people that’s it’s safe–and worthwhile–to trust their home life to technology. For all its hype, the full-service smart home is still very niche; less than 1% of U.S. households own that kind of system. And as with the Internet, the idea of extreme connectivity comes with real concerns about security and privacy. As Hawkinson puts it, “How do you avoid the creepy factor?”

Like many great ideas, SmartThings arose from disaster. In February 2011, Hawkinson and his family arrived in Leadville, Colo., for what they thought would be a relaxing weekend at their vacation home–only to find the interior caked in ice. The pipes had frozen and burst, and the repair bill came to $100,000. “How is it possible that someone hasn’t created something I could plug in,” Hawkinson wondered at the time, “that would alert me when something went wrong?”

The veteran entrepreneur gathered some friends and used a holiday slush fund to start developing what would eventually become the SmartThings hub: a wi-fi-enabled device about the size of a smoke detector that syncs with almost any connected gadget or sensor, allowing users to program their homes from a single app. When paired with a moisture detector, for example, SmartThings could be set to automatically text Hawkinson if his pipes burst again–or, perhaps, to cue the theme from Titanic on his sound system.

Within 18 months, the fledgling company had raised more than $1.2 million on Kickstarter (Ashton Kutcher was an early investor), and manufacturers like Quirky, now a General Electric partner, started sending their devices over for testing so SmartThings could ensure compatibility. By mid-2013, SmartThings had shipped more than 10,000 hubs.

Hawkinson was immediately struck by the creativity of his consumers. A couple in Minnesota put presence sensors on their kids’ backpacks so they could locate them. A man in Canada trained his speakers to play an angelic chorus as he approaches his majestically lit scotch collection. Witnessing such applications firsthand, says Hawkinson, “makes you start to see the world … as programmable.”

To get would-be buyers as excited as he is–an imperative in a space mired in skepticism–Hawkinson encourages users to upload their programs to SmartThings’ open platform so that others can browse and download the most popular ones, much as they do with smartphone apps. (Results are tailored to the gadgets and sensors they actually own.) To date, some 5,000 people have shared their gadget tricks–well above figures from any other smart-home platform–and thousands more have tapped them for personal use.

Still, no matter how much SmartThings crows about connectivity, “there is always going to be a segment that doesn’t see the value,” says Arrowsmith. The gadget selection is limited, the setups can be complicated, and legitimate fears of cybercriminals commandeering your smart locks and cameras have made people wary of making their homes potentially hackable.

Hawkinson understands those concerns, but he’s also trying to render them moot. To ensure security, he hires white-hat hackers to continuously probe SmartThings’ technology and pinpoint vulnerabilities that must be fixed. To make smartification more seamless, he plans to turn the open platform into a full-service connected-home depot offering DIY video tutorials, links to installation services and more. He also struck a deal with Cross Country Home Services, one of the U.S.’s largest home-warranty providers, to include SmartThings hubs as part of a full-home protection plan. And he’s working with Philips and wearable-tech pioneer Jawbone, among others, to enlarge SmartThings’ arsenal of devices.

The main challenge, however, is raising awareness–about SmartThings and about the perks of connecting your home in general. From that standpoint, the competition from Apple, which is starting to enter the connected-home space, is a good thing. “It’s like Inception,” Hawkinson says. “The more people hear about this stuff, the more they realize, Wow, this previously dumb and totally disconnected thing should be connected.”

Then again, connectivity can’t automate everything. Back at home, Hawkinson describes a SmartThings mode he made for his wife called Aaaawwwwwww Yeaaaah. Once he taps his phone, the lights dim red and the bass of Barry White resounds from the speakers. Alas, he says, that particular trick “has never worked out for me.” But don’t blame SmartThings. “Technically,” he clarifies, “it works every time.”

TIME Business

Coalition of the Unwilling

The far right and far left increasingly agree (to hate) Wall Street, tax rates and trade

Election results always have business impacts. But rarely are they as stark as the drop in Boeing stock that followed the defeat of Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primary on June 10. Cantor, an ally of Big Business in Congress, was defeated by David Brat, an economics professor who has been called the Tea Party’s Elizabeth Warren, an outsider pledging to make capitalism fairer for the little guy. He’s also a proponent of cutting federal subsidies to firms like Boeing–hence the one-day stock drop that wiped out its gains for the year–as well as ending “special tax credits to billionaires.”

What Brat’s victory really highlights is a quirk in our politics that is bringing the far right and far left into a series of unexpected alignments. In addition to being anti-Establishment, Brat’s speeches are often anti-immigration and antiglobalization. But when it comes to such economic-policy issues as taxes, free trade and corporate welfare, a lot of Democrats are, more or less, in agreement with him. (Brat’s office did not respond to interview requests.)

Brat, along with many members of the Tea Party and plenty of people on the far left, would like to see some bankers thrown into jail for their role in the financial crisis. These critics argue that corporations benefit unfairly from government subsidies. (Cantor was a booster of the Export-Import Bank, which Boeing’s foreign customers can tap for U.S. taxpayer–subsidized loans.) They believe the rules of free trade are no longer working when China and others can flout them without consequence. And they’d like to see a tax code that doesn’t explicitly favor the superrich.

To be sure, the philosophical underpinnings of Brat and Warren are vastly different. Populists on the left are against measures like fast-track authority for President Obama–which would allow him to bypass Congress when negotiating trade deals–on policy grounds. They believe that such deals in the past sped the offshoring of America’s industrial base, which ultimately erodes our economic competitiveness. Some on both sides of the aisle argue that trade agreements that used to be about tariffs and quotas increasingly focus on domestic issues such as taxes, financial-services regulation, patents and food- and product-safety rules. Says Michael Stumo, who runs the Coalition for a Prosperous America, an advocacy group that represents agriculture and manufacturing businesses across the U.S.: “Modern trade deals are more about globalizing domestic policy and offshoring our jobs, our industries and our governance.”

On the right, members of the Tea Party are skeptical of free-trade deals because they see them as threats to national sovereignty. As Representatives Michele Bachmann and Walter Jones and a number of other conservatives in Congress put it to President Obama in a letter opposing fast track, “For 200 years of our nation’s history, Congress has led our nation’s trade policy,” and conservatives aren’t interested in giving up that privilege.

These aren’t extreme positions. A recent Gallup poll found that 38% of Americans see foreign trade as a “threat to the economy.” A majority of Americans also support tax reform, in particular higher taxes for the wealthy. Part of the momentum around that issue is, of course, driven by an American economy in which the rich have gotten ever richer since the financial crisis while everyone else has struggled. That’s another topic that the flanks in both parties largely agree on–the people who caused the pain of the past six years still haven’t paid for it. “Those guys [meaning financiers] should have gone to jail,” said Brat in the run-up to the Virginia primary. “Instead of going to jail, they went into Eric Cantor’s Rolodex.”

What could this unlikely alliance mean in political terms? Not much in the short term. In some ways, the coalition of Occupy Democrats and Tea Party Republicans is a Coalition of No. Bipartisan opposition has so far stalled fast-track authority for the President’s trans-Pacific trade deal. Coming up with a new trade agenda that could actually reshape policy is a (slow) work in progress. Republican Dave Camp’s tax-reform plan, reflecting popular anger over plutocrats, includes higher rates for hedge funders and private-equity titans, but it faces long to impossible odds against Big Business lobbyists and their lackeys on both sides of the aisle. Still, the Coalition of No is just getting started. If this year’s midterm elections put more Tea Party Republicans in office, it could increase the number of legislators, like Brat, who have something in common with the left: an anticorporate bias. That, in turn, would make for a very different 2016 presidential election than anybody currently imagines.


The Close Work of Diplomacy

Hillary Rodham Clinton Book Signing - Austin, TX
Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signs copies of her book "Hard Choices" at Book People on June 20, 2014 in Austin, Texas. Gary Miller—Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices is a reminder that foreign policy wins take time and perseverance

My favorite sentence in Hillary Clinton’s very diplomatic memoir of her time as Secretary of State is: “So I sat through hours of presentations and discussions, asking questions and raising concerns.” The hours of discussions took place at a U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a regular summit Clinton has labored mightily to create between the two most powerful countries in the world. She has spent dozens of hours with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, establishing a personal relationship because of a fundamental belief that regular meetings–architecture, the diplomats call it–can mitigate damage when crises occur. This is, in fact, her core diplomatic creed, the predicate for an orderly, “rules-based” world. You might say, Well, that seems obvious. Yes, it is. But if you want to know what Hillary Clinton is all about, this is it. Except when it isn’t.

You might also have noticed a certain tension, and perhaps irony, in the sentence. It sounds as if she might have wanted to be doing something else, and that is true: she was in the midst of a crisis. Just before the summit meeting, a blind Chinese dissident named Chen Guangcheng had evaded house arrest and phoned the U.S. embassy asking for refuge. If she granted it, she might blow up the strategic dialogue. “It appeared that I had to decide between protecting one man,” she writes, “and protecting our relationship with China.” She decided, crisply, that the U.S. could not turn away Chen. “In the end it wasn’t a close call,” she writes. “America’s values are the greatest source of strength and security.” So much for architecture. So much for Clinton’s inflexible image. She can be daring too.

There follows about 20 exciting pages–if you’re into the nitty-gritty of diplomacy–of two-track diplomatic haggling, as Clinton and her aides try to save the talks and figure out what to do with the dissident. Chen agrees to a plan to go to law school in China, then changes his mind. He gives interviews to the world media from his hospital bed, angering the Chinese. But they go forward with the summit, and Clinton has to decide between negotiating with the dissident and sitting through the reassuringly boring strategic dialogue. She chooses the “hours of presentations and discussions,” leaving the negotiations to her staff, who arrange a visa for Chen so he can study law in the U.S. The rules-based relationship with China is reinforced. Eventually Clinton’s patience pays dividends: the Chinese cooperate on issues like the Iran economic sanctions and North Korea.

So there is value, and even some entertainment, in Hard Choices, although you’d never know it from the reception the book has received. Clinton is partly to blame for that, as she allowed the memoir to be rolled out as part of a big presidential guessing game, with an elaborate embargo scheme that made it seem as if there were newsy revelations within. There aren’t. Read as a presidential manifesto, it is a tease. Read as a personal memoir, it is a desert. The journalists scouring the book for gossip found that she digs her fingernails into the palms of her hands to fight off jet lag during diplomatic meetings, and little else. Hard Choices has been roundly dismissed as boring. And yes, there are broad narcoleptic swatches of wallpaper-writing as every last country and issue–Here’s to you, Northern Ireland! Here’s to you, climate change!–are given their thousand-word shout-outs. The writing, which can be just fine when the ghostwriters are attempting narrative, lapses all too often into deadly speechwriterese: “Will Africa’s future be decided by guns and graft or growth and good governance?” Yikes. Memo to Democratic ghostwriters: It’s time to shed the alliterative Ted Sorensenian “Ask not” switchbacks and pass the torch to a new generation of readership.

But there is a lesson here too. It has to do with patience and perseverance and the close work of getting the details right. “It is easy to get lost in the semantics,” she writes, “but words constitute much of a diplomat’s work.” And some of the best passages in Hard Choices concern word wrangling, especially with the Russians. The work isn’t very dramatic or sexy; it is the governmental equivalent of solving a crossword puzzle. It is essential to successful statecraft, however–a point that George W. Bush didn’t seem to understand until his second term in office.

Amid the daily concussion of press coverage during crises, Clinton battles for the free world, comma by comma. At times, as in the negotiations over whether to use military force in Libya, she loses perspective. She begins highly skeptical about the efficacy of a strike against the Gaddafi regime, which is threatening to massacre civilians in Benghazi. She asks the right questions: “Who were these rebels we were aiding and were they prepared to lead Libya if Gaddafi fell?” She sides with Defense Secretary Robert Gates–always a safe bet–against the White House aides who favor intervention. Then she changes her mind, lured by the siren song of multilateralism. The Arab League wants U.S. military action in Libya–that’s a breakthrough! The Europeans, especially the French, are ready to roll. She never says explicitly that she changes her mind–Gates says she does in his memoir–but it seems that Clinton has fallen for the promise of closer cooperation with the normally intransigent Arabs and the unusual willingness of the Europeans to take up arms. Of course, within days, the Arab League criticizes the U.S.-organized bombing campaign, and the Europeans don’t have the military wherewithal for a sustained fight. She also neglects discussing the consequences of her decision: the anarchy that is now Libya, the rule by militias that eventually results in the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi. (Her chapter on Benghazi is comprehensive and logical, though few of the Fox hounds who see the issue as a matter of theology, not facts, will buy it.)

Clinton can be selectively disingenuous. Her chapter on Middle East negotiations dwells on the overreaction in the region and in the press when on Halloween night in 2009 in Jerusalem, she calls “unprecedented” Israel’s offer of a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement except for Jerusalem. And yes, it may well have been unprecedented in technical terms, but other words more accurately describe the Israeli move: partial, grudging, unacceptable. The rest of the world considers Israel’s settlement building in contested areas an illegal provocation. But there is a more troubling, and personal, subtext here. Clinton doesn’t mention it, but she had established–and perhaps overstated–the Obama Administration’s hard line against the illegal settlements five months earlier, when she’d said, “[The President] wants to see a stop to settlements–not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions … That is our position.” Her acceptance of Israel’s partial freeze was a retreat from that hard line, a public retreat that dismayed the White House. “Why does she do that?” a senior Administration official asked me at the time, referring to her initial harder-than-necessary position and later “unprecedented” retreat.

Because she is human. She does not always come equipped with a natural politician’s body armor or habitual flight to the anodyne. She has an advocate’s fervor–especially when it involves women and children. She’s got a temper. She displays it in Africa when asked about her husband’s position on a complicated World Bank issue, a question that seems to denigrate her importance. “Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? … My husband is not Secretary of State.” She knows this is wrong and apologizes quickly to the young man who asked the question. But I would guess that one of the reasons Clinton seems so buttoned-up in public is a fear that she’ll unleash an arrant display of imperfection. Unfortunately, this deprives the public of her wicked sense of humor and commonsense candor–which is on occasional display, but on a very short leash, in Hard Choices. She is happy to admit her glaring, well-known mistakes, like her support for the war in Iraq. But she is wary of copping to lesser, if more telling, diplomatic misjudgments–on Libya or her support for the second Afghanistan surge. Again, Gates’ book is more candid: Clinton supported an even larger number of surge troops than he did. She does not mention that in Hard Choices.

She admits to disagreements with President Obama–on whether to arm the Syrian rebels, for example–but the disagreements are ridiculously civil and vague, especially when compared with the blue rages that Gates describes himself throwing in his memoir. The only memorable verbal scuffles she describes are with foreigners. And these are either resolved over time or not, equably.

That the Hard Choices book-tour extravaganza has been a bit of a bomb has more to do with the public atmosphere than it does with the book, which is a cut above the sort of thing you’d expect from a Secretary of State–although several cuts below Gates’ riveting candor. Its most important lessons–about patience, management, the importance of details, the slow building of personal relationships–are precisely the skills that we seem to ignore in the public arena these days. We are impatient with anything beyond simple declarative sentences, the more hortatory the better: “Assad must go.” But diplomacy and good government exist in a mind-numbing haze of clauses and nuance. Clinton makes the case that she has mastered the placement of commas and that she has the patience to negotiate with opponents, foreign and domestic. That is the purpose of the book: to demonstrate that she would bring these quiet attributes to the presidency. In this moment of blare and paralysis, it is a subtly clever argument to make. Too subtle, perhaps.


The War That Changed The World

1. Weltkrieg
The return of a French column of Zouaves - light infantry regiments - from the border with Tripolitaine, at the garrison Medenine, in southern Tunisia, March 20, 1916. Albert Samama-Chikli—R Schultz Collection/The Image Works

On the centenary of 
 World War I, a selection of rare photos brings color to a catastrophe that ruined a generation and completely upended the old world order

One hundred years ago this summer, sparked by the June 28 assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Europe plunged blindly into a global war that would leave nearly 10 million soldiers dead, twice that number wounded, countless civilians slaughtered or ruined, economies wrecked, empires toppled and the disastrous seeds of communism and fascism sown in ground, fertilized by blood and anguish. “All gods dead,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in the war’s wake, “all faiths in man shaken.”

The manmade disaster that was first called the Great War wrenched Europe out of the past and thrust it into a dystopian future. This is when the genocides began, and bombs first fell from the skies, when old orders discredited themselves with nothing better to take their places. The good were left exhausted by the carnage—which gave evil a head start in the next round of that eternal competition.

Despite the scale of the conflict’s death toll and its historical weight, World War I occupies a surprisingly small space in the Western memory, perhaps because it had no silver lining—no slaves were freed, no death camps liberated by brave American GIs. The story is told (when it’s told at all) through herky-jerky black-and-white movies of men in silly helmets moving like Claymation dolls, and goggled pilots in flimsy biplanes, and soldiers wearing gas masks like snouts.

These experimental color photographs, on the other hand, narrow the distance between us and that wasteland. They reach across the century to remind us that those millions dead were once as real and warm as we. Theirs was not an alien, colorless landscape. It was our world—and could be again, should we forget the lessons of World War I.


Which Company will Control Your Home?

Much as Google and Yahoo rode search to billion-dollar empires, the firms that bring order to the “Internet” of your home are poised to revolutionize how we live—and make a fortune in the process. Here’s a look at where the major players stand



Apple’s HomeKit tech–which will debut this fall in iOS 8–will wrangle other companies’ smart gadgets: say “bedtime” to Siri on your iPhone, for example, and it might dim your Philips Hue lightbulb. But the company isn’t saying whether it’s creating its own smart-home app.


The 122-year-old conglomerate partnered with startup Quirky to crowdsource ideas for connected gadgets, like a tray that pings your phone when you’re out of eggs. Now Quirky plans to turn the software it created for such products into an ambitious operating system for the digital home.


It’s followed up its $3.2 billion purchase of Nest–the smart-gadget company founded by Tony Fadell, a.k.a. the “Godfather of the iPod” (see page 54)–by acquiring Dropcam, maker of a slick web-enabled security camera. But the ad giant’s biggest hurdle might be persuading consumers to trust it with the sensitive personal data such devices collect.


The company could evolve its Xbox One console into a smart-home base station with a software update. So far, though, its biggest move has been partnering with Insteon, which provides home-automation services and apps for Windows and Windows Phone.

The $400 Xbox One may soon help automate your house



AT&T’s principal competitor currently discontinued its do-it-yourself security-and-automation service in February. But it’s got millions of customers to tap, and it probably won’t stay out of the category forever.


AT&T Digital Home–a service that lets you monitor your security, energy use and more from an app on your phone–is available in most U.S. markets. But the à la carte prices ($5 to $40 a month) add up fast.


The cable behemoth already bundles security services with TV channels for one fee; now it is rolling out Xfinity Home, a suite of home-automation services that can be controlled with a tablet remote.



For $100, SmartThings offers a wi-fi-enabled hub that allows you to connect products from a range of companies–including Quirky, Jawbone and Honeywell–and control them with a single app. (It also sells sensors that can be placed on dumb devices to make them smart.) The system is well priced, but SmartThings will need to be intrepid to thrive as Apple and Google invade its turf.

The $100 SmartThings hub works with gadgets from GE, Belkin and more


Its one-hub-to-control-them-all gimmick is similar to SmartThings’, and it has a retail partnership with Home Depot. But because Revolv hasn’t finished developing its open platform, the system is less customizable than SmartThings’. Its hub is also more expensive ($300 vs. SmartThings’ $100), and the company is still working on an Android app.

The $300 Revolv hub can sense when you’re home



ADT and Vivint are giving away ambitious home-automation systems with touchscreen control panels as an incentive to sign up for long-term contracts. But those fee-based models may not hold up.


LG, Samsung, Whirlpool and others are adding connectivity to their appliances–letting you perform feats like preheating the oven from your phone. But it’s unclear if they can dominate other aspects of smart-home control.


Lowe’s, the DIY retailer, offers Iris, a system that lets you control security cameras, light switches, locks and other devices. Office superstore Staples’ Connect is similar. But they’ll have to compete with the well-known tech brands.


Nest CEO Tony Fadell on The Future of the Smart Home

Tony Fadell Portrait Nest Labs CEO
Ian Allen for TIME

The gadget whisperer is giving household objects a mind of their own

Tony Fadell is not a fan of the one button. If you grew up watching The Jetsons, you know the one. It’s the button that automatically dims the lights, draws the blinds and spins the record player. “The problem with the one button is that the one button shouldn’t do the same thing for everyone,” says Fadell, the 45-year-old CEO of Nest Labs. “The truth is, homes change over time–and technology has to adapt, not try to do everything at once.”

If Fadell’s philosophy matters, it’s in no small part because four-year-old Nest has helped kick-start the current boom in connected gadgets. The company’s first product, also called Nest, was a $250 thermostat that learns the habits of its users in order to save energy–automatically lowering the temperature when nobody’s home, for example. Its second, the Nest Protect (current price: $100), was a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that gives voice alerts and can differentiate between burning toast and actual emergencies.

By now it’s clear that Nest plans to work its way through the average American home, looking for staples to make smarter–much as its CEO reimagined the music player and the mobile phone during his 2000s gig as a senior vice president at Apple. (Fadell is known in Silicon Valley as the Godfather of the iPod.) And it will do so alongside a powerful partner: Google, which in January acquired the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., for $3.2 billion.

But Fadell’s view of smart gadgetry differs greatly from that of most of his competitors. When he set out to reinvent the thermostat, the prevailing thinking was that it would turn into a miniature computer. Manufacturers “were adding photos. They were adding a calendar. They were adding the weather,” he says. In other words, they were loading thermostats with bells and whistles, but they weren’t actually making them work better. “It made no sense to me,” he says. “How about we look at the basic function of this device and not overly complicate?” The same could be asked of the connected-home market, now brimming with hundreds of products–wi-fi-enabled toothbrushes, touchscreen toilets, toasters that can tweet–all claiming to be “smart” simply because they can do the same things your tablet can.

Fadell argues that truly smart gadgets should have built-in intelligence like the Nest thermostat. They should be able to automatically adapt to your wants and needs, so you don’t have to think about them if you don’t want to. “We have enough technology trying to take our attention away, trying to give us an excuse not to talk to each other,” he says. Instead, he says, he’s designing products for the conscious home–“the home that is aware of what your family is doing and tries to help you,” as he puts it. In that habitat, there will be no one button. Because the smartest technologies may not even require your input.

Fadell was born near detroit and grew up in a large family of Lebanese and Polish-Russian descent. He attended 12 schools in 15 years as the family shuffled around the country, a result of his father’s sales job with Levi Strauss. On visits home, his grandfather–a superintendent of schools and a handyman–encouraged a love of tinkering, and Fadell became fascinated with electronics. Because he moved so much, he says, “computers became my way of communicating.”

Fadell was a natural entrepreneur too. In his spare time at the University of Michigan, where he studied computer engineering, he started two companies. One made educational software; the other manufactured microprocessors to speed up Apple II computers. He sold the latter to Apple before graduating and moving to Silicon Valley.

Bald and broad-shouldered, Fadell has a tendency to get worked up when he’s on a roll, darting his blue-green eyes in your direction to make sure you’re still with him. “There was always a joke that when Tony gets excited, you have to watch his chair,” says Yves Béhar, the award-winning industrial designer and chief creative officer at Jawbone, who first met Fadell in the late 1990s. “In meetings he would get up and bounce around–literally like a bouncing ball. A couple of times he broke the chairs in my office.”

In 1991, Fadell’s tech enthusiasm led him to a job at General Magic, one of those Silicon Valley footnotes that made products that were ahead of their time. It was also a hotbed of young talent. As a 20-something, Fadell worked alongside Pierre Omidyar, who later founded eBay, and Andy Rubin, the creator of Google’s Android mobile operating system. “We basically created the technology for the iPhone 20 years too early,” he recalls.

But there and during a later stint at Philips trying to create early handheld computers, Fadell found that mere excitement about underlying technology was not enough to make a hit product. By the time Steve Jobs persuaded him to take a full-time role at Apple working on what would become the iPod, he was convinced that marketing and a keen sense of what not to put in were just as important as engineering. The success of the iPod and, later, the iPhone validated his thinking.

Fadell left his full-time job at Apple in 2008, taking a year and a half to travel with his wife Danielle Lambert, a former Apple vice president, and their children. He also threw himself into designing a second home, near Lake Tahoe. As he imagined the hallways and rooms of his yet-to-be-built house, he came to see dozens of items that could benefit from better brains. That’s when he hit on the idea of a smarter thermostat.

“Tony said, ‘There is no iPod of thermostats,’ and I was on board immediately,” recalls Matt Rogers, Fadell’s former intern at Apple, whom he approached over lunch in October 2009. (Rogers, now Nest’s co-founder and vice president of engineering, was also the first software developer for the iPhone.) Fourteen months later, they had a working prototype. The company’s gadgets were soon widely heralded–including in TIME, which named the Nest Protect one of the 25 best inventions of 2013.

Nest and Nest protect are just phase 1 of the company’s plan to reimagine the household. Rogers, like Fadell, is convinced that much of the smart-home gear that’s currently in vogue among designers–kits that plug into and control a variety of appliances, for example–is overly complex and inelegant. “Nobody wants to buy [that kind of] smart home. It’s for geeks,” says Rogers. “People want to buy great products. It should be all these little touchpoints that make your life simpler.”

Rogers is particularly excited about Nest’s new open platform, which will enable devices to talk to one another without a lot of babysitting by users. For instance, beginning this summer, some Mercedes-Benz vehicles will be able to communicate with Nest thermostats to automatically adjust a home’s temperature according to how long it will take you to get back from work that day. Similarly, Jawbone’s wearable fitness trackers–which know when you are about to wake up in the morning–will be able to raise the temperature just as you get out of bed. As for more hardware, Fadell won’t reveal specifics, though on June 23 the company announced it would acquire home-security-camera maker Dropcam for $555 million. Says Fadell: “We look for unloved products, the things that haven’t changed since I was a kid.”

There will be obstacles. Competition, for one, is growing. Honeywell, the giant manufacturer of thermostats, introduced a Nest competitor in June that it dubbed Lyric. And earlier this year, Nest issued a software fix for 440,000 smoke detectors when it determined that a defect could cause an alarm to be delayed. A later bulletin from the Consumer Product Safety Commission generated unflattering recall headlines.

Then there’s Google. Although Nest is being operated independently of its search and data parent, that hasn’t stopped some from speculating about targeted ads appearing on connected Nest devices. Rogers and Fadell reject the idea, saying the data their company collects won’t be shared without customers’ explicit permission. For Nest, too much is at stake. Its future depends on getting users to trust technology to learn about them in the most private settings. If anyone knows how to do that, it’s the man who helped create the iPod and the iPhone, two of the most lionized gadgets ever. “At Apple, we changed society,” Fadell says, somewhat contemplatively. Now he’s trying again.

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