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


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.


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.


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.


The problem with relying on an external service is it can go away years later. The content of this page is broken because the examples relied on the Skitch service. 

Today’s design is based on the Open Road SVG image that was just uploaded. This SVG image is ideal for a background, because it lends itself to morphing. It’s also a horizontal image, which works better for a background image.

The image is adding into the page in such a way that it expands to fill the page, regardless of how small or large the browser window is. It is resolution independent. I use two SVG attributes to manage how the images show in my sites, both set on the SVG element, itself.

The first SVG attribute I set is viewBox. The viewBox attribute is a way of capturing a specific section of the SVG image, and using this captured section to fill a given viewport. For instance, if the image naturally sizes to 400 pixels wide, 200 pixels tall, setting a viewBox to 0 0 400 200 is equivalent to how the image would fill the viewport by default without a viewBox. If you use different settings, say 50 20 350 150, then you’re modifying the viewport for the image, setting the beginning x at 50, beginning y at 20, the width at 350 and the height at 150. Since, by default, x increases from left to right, y increases from top to bottom, setting the beginning x and y clips the upper and leftmost edges of the image. If the width and height is less than what the image’s true width and height is, this clips the bottom and rightmost section of the image. You can use any combination, including negative for min-x and min-y, but you can’t use negative values for the width and height. If you use a negative value for the min-x and min-y, it’s about the same as using a margin–it pushes the image over and down.

The viewBox I put on the Open Highway SVG is 50 50 600 400. I decided I didn’t like the sun showing, so I set a smaller width, clipping the image on the right. I didn’t like as much blue sky, and I liked having the road focused a little off-centered, to the right, so I set the min-y and min-x accordingly.

Now, if I used the SVG, as is, with my expanded background, what would happen is the browser engine would attempt to fill my space, but still maintain the image’s original aspect ratio. The image would expand to fill the width at a 100%, but to preserve the aspect ratio, the height wouldn’t be enough to fill the space. The image expands in both dimensions until one fills the space, and then stops expanding along the other dimension.

This can work sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t work. In this case, it doesn’t work.

I use the second SVG attribute, preserveAspectRatio, set to a value of “none” to tell the browser engine not to preserve the aspect ratio. Then the image expands 100% along the width and height–stretching the image, true, but filling in the space. If you choose the right background, such as Open Road, which works rather well, it doesn’t matter the perspective, it works. There are also other settings for peserveAspectRatio, but I’ll play around with those another day, with another design.


The images were created using Firefox 3b3. Firefox 2.x has limited support for SVG at this time.

My two other images are not the same as the background, as I’m not demonstrating the resolution independent nature of SVG today. I used a coffee cup for the top image, and a little car for the bottom, both of which I think complement the “open road” scheme. Both have the viewBox set, otherwise the SVG images would not resize to fit the container. Instead, I’d be stuck with scrollbars (more on scrollbars later). The coffee cup viewBox creates a viewport big enough for the entire image. The car’s height is clipped, so that the wheels line up directly on the bottom of the page.

Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I used the object element rather than inputing the SVG inline for today’s theme, as I wanted to record another couple of bugs with WebKit and Opera.

Webkit stretches the image, but it doesn’t draw the content over the SVG until I scroll down and back again. In addition, WebKit also adds a white background for the SVG, which is something we can’t seem to control. This can really ruin a nice effect, such as the top coffee mug, and the bottom car.


Opera doesn’t stretch it at all, and also persists in putting scrollbars on the objects. No matter what I do to try and control the object overflow, the scrollbars get added.


I’ve turned in bug reports for WebKit about the drawing problem and the white background. I’ve also noted problems with pages for Opera, but I’m going to make sure formal bugs are entered for the gradient problem with yesterday’s design, and the object scrollbars and inaccurate resizing with yesterday’s and today’s design.

The work on the themes does demonstrate another important issue. Something like ACID2 and ACID3 are handy ways of seeing if key web technologies are supported, but they’re not comprehensive. Firefox 3b3 scores less than Opera 9.5b and the WebKit nightly on ACID3, but it has better overall support for SVG; especially as integrated into a web page. If the browser makers focus too much on the Acid tests, they may miss the overall picture, which is ensuring that SVG works well in a web page. I have confidence, though, that my reported bugs will generate activity.

I won’t keep this design for long–or at least, I won’t use the object elements–because IE does not deal well with SVG loaded into an object elements that are supposed to be in the background, no matter what version of IE I use. The content is pushed down with IE7, and gone altogether with IE8. I’m getting this behavior even when using the Adobe SVG plug-in.

In the meantime, since Microsoft isn’t welcoming bug reports from the general public related to IE8, my only recourse is to remove the Adobe plug-in. Once the Adobe SVG plug-in was de-installed, then the page opened just fine in IE. Well, it’s in black and white, but legible.


Bud didn’t like the clouds.


Clouds gone.