Nest: Don’t toss it on the Smart Home dead pile just yet

Nest thermostat set to cool 74 degrees

Having heavily invested in Nest products, it’s disconcerting to read articles with titles such as Nest, Google’s $3 billion Bet, May Be in Trouble, or With $340 million in revenue, Nest is underperforming, and its future at Google is at risk. If Google dumps Nest, then who is going to maintain my Nest Protects (smoke and carbon monoxide detectors), thermostat, and Dropcam/NestCams?

The short version of the stories is that Nest is under-performing, it’s having problems with management, and talent is jumping ship. Well, Google, oh, sorry, Alphabet, can fix all of these problems: solve the management problems and work on keeping the necessary staff onboard. Alphabet/Nest also needs to roll out new products and integrate the Nest products with OnHub, which, from a smart home perspective, is dumb as a stump. Both efforts would be an interesting challenge to employees and engineer fresh interest in the brand.

I like my Nest products. I like the softly glowing green ring from my Protects when I turn out the light, letting me know they’re watching out for me. I also like that I can see how their battery is holding up just by using my smartphone. No more battery-low beeping in the middle of the night.

My one Dropcam, and a second NestCam are terrific. They’re the only video cameras I know that you can install indoors, point outdoors through windows, and get a good picture—whether daylight, or illuminated by outdoor lights. They adjust beautifully to changing light conditions, are quite responsive, and you can turn them off when you don’t need them.

My Nest thermostat is very useful…other than the one time the software glitch drained all the battery, leading to some very embarrassing moments for Nest and Alphabet. But my energy use has dropped because of the thermostat, and I have more finite control over what happens, and when.

I also have an IFTTT recipe where my Netatmo  triggers my Nest thermostat to turn on the fan, when it detects carbon monoxide levels exceeding 1500ppm. No more groggy, sleepy days working at the computer.

This IFTTT capability isn’t the only new integration. I can now control the thermostat using Amazon’s Echo, and in case of a fire, the Protects trigger my Philips Hue lights to briefly turn on bright red, to wake us up, and then dim red, which is better for seeing in smoke. They also flash yellow when there’s a warning.

What’s been missing from Nest in the past was smart home integration with other products. The division is now getting its act together in this regard. It would be a shame to cut it loose when it’s just now starting to get interesting.

Come on Alphabet, if you’re going to be a multi-headed hydra, then you have to know when to step back and when to step in. If the head of Nest, Tony Fadell, is as bad as people are saying, then toss his butt into the void and bring in fresh talent. If he isn’t that bad, then defend him. Either way, demonstrate your commitment to the company. No one is going to buy your products, no matter how shiny, if people think you’re going to cut both the products and the customers, loose to fend on our own.

A good place to start showing commitment is demonstrating some new smart home magic: Nest, meet OnHub. OnHub…OnHub…wake up, OnHub…meet Nest.

Smart Home, Older House, Cold House

Update:

Several publications have come out today, including one from the New York Times, about a software update being responsible for the battery drain. That’s one bad bug, and Nest is going to take a major credibility hit because of it.

We also had problems with our Nest Protects (smoke/carbon monoxide detection) a few weeks prior, with none of them being able to access the cloud. However, they work without wireless access, including the ability to connect and communicate with each other, so it was more of a nuisance than a problem. I do wonder, though, if the same bug didn’t get introduced into all Nest products.

In the meantime, adding a C wire didn’t work for us. It would have required too many holes being drilled, and damage to floor and wall. We’re going with the add-a-wire feature, instead.

Earlier:

Our home was built in 1986, which means it’s on the border between modern, new standards and the old way of doing things.

When we tried to add new GE smart light switches, we found that most of the switches don’t have a neutral wire needed to power the switches. The old, unintelligent switches didn’t need power—they’re just on or off. The new ones, need power to communicate with the controlling hub and other compatible devices.

The same applies to our thermostat: we don’t have a ‘C’ or common wire that runs from the heating/cooling system to the thermostat.

We have a second generation Nest thermostat, and not having a ‘C’ wire is supposed to not be an issue with this thermostat—at least with most HVAC systems. The device gets its power from the “red” wire (the power line) by “power stealing” a little bit of the power that comes through the line. The problem with this approach is if the system is very active, the device doesn’t have a chance to charge the battery as frequently and you can lose thermostat functionality, or even drain the battery.

The other issue is if the HVAC equipment isn’t running, at all, and the device needs power. What the Nest thermostat does is “pulse” the equipment to get a bit of juice, but supposedly very quickly, so that the equipment doesn’t come on. If this doesn’t sound like something you would want to do,  you’ll get agreement from many HVAC manufacturers.

Then there’s the situation that happened last night. It was very cold, so the system was running intermittently  through the night. In addition, I suspect from chatter in the Nest forum, the thermostat received a software update in the night. I also suspect that the software update drained what little power the battery had, to the point where I was faced with a completely black device this morning. I couldn’t even run it manually.

When the temperatures are below freezing, you don’t want a thermostat that doesn’t work. At this point, you’d settle for a dumb thermostat, as long as it turns on the heat.

I knew I could power the device using a micro-USB cord, connected to my computer. I connected it for about a half hour, charging the battery enough that I could connect it to the wall plate and turn on the heat. Of course, while the heat is running, the device isn’t charging, but it should have enough juice to take the chill edge off the house.

If we weren’t at home, I’m not sure if the device would have even been able to start charging without my assistance. Normally, the Nest thermostat shows a blinking red light when the battery is very low and charging, but it wasn’t showing this light this morning. It was completely drained.  We could have come home to frozen pipes and damaged walls.

Assurances from Nest aside, it’s time to update our wiring. We have a couple of options. One is we could attach a Venstar Add-a-Wire Adapter, which turns a 4-wire setup into the 5-wire setup needed for smart thermostats. Or we can run a ‘C’ wire from the HVAC to the thermostat. Though the latter approach is more expensive, we decided if we were going to fix the problem, we’d do so without a hack and we’d fix it once and for all.

Tomorrow morning our HVAC company is coming out to run the new ‘C’ wire to the thermostat, and hopefully we’ll never again wake up to a freezing cold house. If we do, than the Nest thermostat is being replaced by an Ecobee.

 

Alexa as service, Echo as interface

Today, Amazon released new versions of its tablets, as well as a new Fire TV. The latter is generating interest in part because Alexa has been added to it. This means you can use the new Fire TV in a manner similar to the Echo, and be able to play favorite TV shows, too.

The new device supports the new 4K Ultra HD in addition to 1080p, promises to eliminate buffering, supports all the popular streaming apps, and has voice search enabled on the remote. I hope Amazon has improved the remote, because I’ve found that Echo’s remote is no where near as sensitive as the Echo device is, itself.

I like the video support, but I have a Roku and I don’t have a 4K Ultra HD TV, yet. What I’m more interested in, is the Alexa integration. Watching the demo video at Amazon, Alexa will display an answer to the TV rather than verbally.  (Engadget notes this, also.) If you have it play music, it uses your TV’s speakers.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. If you have an Echo and the new Fire TV in the same room, you’re going to have contention over which device answers when you call out, “Alexa…”. While watching the Amazon demonstration video, my Echo responded when the voice in the video asked, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” I’m rather hoping that Amazon gets away from only allowing one to use Alexa, or Amazon, as the device voice indicator.

I’m also assuming you do have to have the TV on for the device to work. Currently I use Echo’s timer functionality, as well as have it play music while I’m working. I wouldn’t want to turn my TV on for both. In this regard, Echo wins. Echo also has smart home integration, which the Fire TV currently lacks.

From a developer perspective, the Fire TV demonstrates Amazon’s new Alexa Voice Service Developer Preview. If you’re a developer, and you have a device with a microphone, a speaker, and an internet connection, you can interface with Alex as a service. First thing that comes to my mind is this opens up some interesting possibilities if you like to tinker around with microcomputers, such as Raspberry Pi. However, I’m not sure how open Amazon is to people tinkering with the service. The sign-up for the developer kit seems to assume you’re a developer for a company with a product to sell.

Like Roku.

This new developer kit joins with the existing Alexa  Skills Kit, where you can create an app that can be installed on an Echo (and possibly other Alexa devices, eventually), such as my favorite, Cat Facts.

Node.js developers, note that Node.js figures heavily with both kits. See? Your mad  programming skills just found a new outlet to explore.

Amazon made, what I feel, is a very smart move with its recent innovations. Rather than compete directly with device companies who control marketplaces, such as Roku, it’s taking the same type of functionality (video streaming), and integrating it into the smart home controller environment. It’s similar to Google’s new OnHub, which takes Wi-Fi routing into the same environment.

Exciting times. Let’s just hope security is considered first, rather than last, with all this cross-line innovation.

 

Why read about it when you can play

Earlier today I got into a friendly discussion and debate on Twitter about a new web site called W3Fools. The site bills itself as a “W3Schools intervention”, and the purpose is to wake developers up to the fact that W3School tutorials can, and do, have errors.

The problem with a site like W3Fools, I said (using shorter words, or course, since this was Twitter), is that it focuses too much on the negative aspects of W3Schools, without providing a viable alternative.

But, they said, W3Fools does provide links to other sites that provide information on HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. And, I was also told, the reason W3Schools shows up first in search results is because of uncanny use of SEO optimization.

Hmmm.

It may be true that W3Schools makes excellent use of SEO, and it may be equally true that W3Schools commits egregious and painful errors. However, neither of these account for what W3Schools is doing right. If you don’t acknowledge what the site does well, you’re not going to make much headway into turning people off the site—no matter how many cleverly named sites you create.

For instance, one of the superior information sites recommended by W3Fools is the Mozilla Doc Center, or MDC as it is affectionately known. Now, I’m a big fan of MDC. I use it all the time, especially when I want to get a better idea of what Firefox supports. But look at the work you have to put in to learn about a new HTML5 element, such as the new HTML5 hgroup element:

  1. Go to main page
  2. Click on HTML5 link
  3. Search through the topics until you see one that’s titled “Sections and outlines in HTML5”, which you know you want because it mentions hgroup
  4. Have a neuron fire and realize that you can just click directly on hgroup
  5. Go to the hgroup page, past the disclaimer about what version of Firefox supports the element, looking for an example of usage
  6. Realize there is no example of how to use hgroup
  7. Go to the original Sections and Outlines in HTML5 link
  8. Go past some stuff about elephants, looking for example
  9. Go past some bullets about why all this new sectioning stuff is cool, looking for an example
  10. Break down and use your in-page search to find hgroup
  11. Finally find an example of how to use hgroup

As compared to W3Schools:

  1. Go to main page
  2. Click on Learn HTML5 link
  3. Click on New Elements link
  4. Start to scroll down when you realize the new elements are listed along the left side
  5. Click on hgroup
  6. Look at example

One thing W3Schools does well is provide a clean, simple to navigate interface that makes it very easy to find exactly what you need with a minimum of scrolling or searching.

Returning to our comparison between W3Schools and MDC, we then search for information on SQL. Oh, wait a sec: there isn’t anything on SQL at the Mozilla site. That’s because Mozilla is primarily a browser company and is only interested in documenting browser stuff.

So then our intrepid explorer must find another site, this one providing information on SQL. And if they want to learn more about PHP, they have to find yet another site. To learn about ASP? Another site, and so on.

What W3Schools also provides is one-stop shopping for the web developer. Once you’ve become familiar with the interface, and once the site has proved helpful, you’re more likely to return when you need additional information. Let’s face it: wouldn’t you rather use one site than dozens?

Screenshot of W3Schools page showing many of the topics

Let’s say, though, that you need information on CSS3. Well, you know that MDC covers CSS, so you return to the MDC site, and you click on the link that’s labeled “CSS”, and you look for something that says CSS3.

What do you mean there isn’t anything that says CSS3? What do you mean that transitions are CSS3—how am I, a CSS3 neophyte, supposed to know this?

Returning to W3Schools, I click the link in the main page that is labeled CSS3. Oh look, in the page that opens, there’s a sidebar link that’s labeled “CSS3 transitions”. And when I click that link, a page opens that provides an immediate example of using CSS3 transitions that I can try, as well as an easy to read a table of browser support.

Screenshot of W3Schools CSS3 transitions page

W3Schools doesn’t throw a lot of text before the examples, primarily because we learn web material best by example. Remember that an entire generation of web developers grew up with “View Source” as our primary learning tool.

But so far, I’ve only compared W3Schools to MDC. There are other useful sites that the W3Fools site approves. So I try the “Google: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript from the ground up” web page. When it opens, I click the link labeled CSS…

And I get a video about using CSS.

A video.

Remember in junior high or high school, when your science teacher would bring out the projector and you knew you were going to get a video? Do you remember that feeling that came over you? How you kind of relaxed, because you know the teacher wasn’t going to ask you any questions, and you didn’t have to write any notes, or even really pay attention?

I bet some of you even fell asleep during the video.

Videos are good for specific types of demonstrations—when something is complex, with many different steps, and the order of the steps and other factors have to be just so.

When it comes to CSS, HTML, and so many other web technologies, though, video is about the most passive and non-interactive learning experience there is. More importantly, if the video doesn’t have captioning, and most don’t, you’re also leaving part of your audience behind.

Now let’s return to the W3Schools site, this time looking at one of the CSS selector tutorials. The first thing you notice is that right below the example there’s a button, labeled “Try it Yourself”.

W3Schools screenshot showing the Try It button

Why read about it, when you can play?

One of the more annoying aspects of trying to learn about a specific HTML element, or a bit of CSS, is that you have to create an entire web page just to try it out. What W3Schools provides is that all important, absolutely essential, one button click to Try it out.

I’m not defending W3Schools. The site has played off the W3C title, though that doesn’t have a lot of meaning nowadays. More importantly, some of the material has errors and the site is resistant to correcting any of these errors, and this is unconscionable.

But you aren’t going to dent the popularity of the site without at least understanding why it is so popular. The W3Schools’ site is not popular because of SEO, and it’s not popular because of the W3 part of the name.

The W3Schools website is so popular because it is so usable.

That’s just not right

Earlier, I found a PR release from the AVMA (American Veterinarian Medical Association) undermining Missouri’s Proposition B in favor of its “model bill”. In an associated video, the AVMA’s CEO, Dr. DeHaven, states that Proposition B only sets limits on the number of dogs that can be kept, when in actuality, Proposition B does more (DeHaven’s video)—much more than the AVMA model bill, which relies almost completely on a commercial dog breeder honor system (and large scale commercial dog breeders are not necessarily known for their honor).

Afterward, I received an email related to a bug I’m following in the HTML5 working group. In response to detailed, thoughtful request for a way to provide alternative text for a video poster, the HTML5 editor, Ian Hickson, declined, writing as rationale:

The request here is just cargo-cult accessibility and would not
actually improve the life of any users, while costing authors in wasted time
and effort.

I reacted the same to both: that’s just not right.

You would think that humane treatment of dogs and ensuring accessibility for folks would be no-brainers, equivalent to being “agin sin”. You would think so…and you would be wrong.

Whatever sense of empathy and compassion we had, once upon a time, seems to have been left in a long ago forgotten consciousness. Today, what rules is the bottom line, and if that bottom line must run over the bodies of puppies and disabled, equally, run it must because there’s a new sense of pragmatic necessity that rules in the land.

Those who cannot see do not really need to know what the poster to a video is all about, because authors can’t really be bothered to provide the information. It’s not pragmatic to even consider the option. As Hickson stated earlier in the discussion of the bug:

I’m confused. Why would you (a blind user) want to know what the poster frame
is? How does it affect you?

How does it affect you‽

The welfare of dogs is important, yes, but not at the cost of the rights of the breeder. Weighing the needs of the dogs over the wants of the breeder is not pragmatic. The AVMA invited Wes Jamison, a communications professor from Florida, to speak about the role of veterinarians in today’s society. What he said explains much about the AVMA position:

Dr. Jamison … indicated that the veterinary profession, by emphasizing the importance of the human-animal bond, enables consumer hypocrisy, which is exploited by animal protection organizations. He argued that the AVMA should abandon advocating for the human-animal bond in favor of fighting for the right of animal owners to use animals as they choose, whether that entails companionship, food, or labor.

The human-animal bond is hypocrisy‽

Pragmatic hell, that’s just not right.