Honeywell, Nest, and the Next Wave of IP Protection

Intellectual property is vitally important to innovation, but there comes a point where patents are so broad that they stifle new products and technologies.  So seems the case when large, long running companies can quash younger innovators with costly, time-consuming patent lawsuits.

There’s been quite a little buzz over startup company Nest’s Learning Thermostat. Designed by former Apple engineers, it features sleek, minimalist styling with a track wheel control, like the original iPod. It operates a self-programming system based on an interview-style interface, and learns your habits in order to predict when to change the temperature and save you up to 30% on your energy bill. It can also be remotely controlled from your computer or smartphone. It’s been receiving accolades as a nifty, attractive and innovative design and has been sold out since early November.

Thermostat giant Honeywell has taken a rather sour grapes attitude to all of this and has filed a patent infringement lawsuit accusing Nest of seven separate instances of infringement.  

These alleged infringements cover the sleek, minimalist styling, or at least the rotatable ring control. The interview style interface. The energy saving features. And the feature to control remotely via the Internet. Honeywell claims that the core design and functionality of Nest’s thermostat are the direct result of years of research and development carried out by Honeywell. The 2008 Honeywell thermostat, the Prestige, does appear to offer many of the features Nest’s does.

But can you really patent the shape of a device?  Or something as ubiquitous as WiFi connectivity now is?  And if you can, should you?

Honeywell’s crusade to “protect its intellectual property” is, for the moment at least, exclusively targeted towards Nest (and Best Buy, who is selling Nest’s products) -- which seems to suggest Honeywell is more interested in keeping innovative startup competitors from entering the market than IP.  But Nest’s thermostat is not the only competitive device on the market right now.  General Electric also offers the ability to manage a “GE smart thermostat” via the internet.  When asked to comment on GE’s system, Honeywell told  All Things D: “I don’t know. I’m not familiar with that product.” Honeywell also told GigaOm last week that it had shelved plans for a “learning” thermostat 20 years ago because they “found that consumers prefer to control the thermostat, rather than being controlled by the thermostat”, and decided to focus on other innovations.

So Honeywell doesn’t (or didn’t) want to pursue this particular innovation. But it doesn’t want a slick little startup like Nest to have it either. The problem is, an industry behemoth like Honeywell has a lot more financial clout and could sink Nest with a lengthy and costly litigation process -- even if it doesn’t win the patent lawsuit, it could at least deliver a critical hit. Which is discouraging for innovation all around.  Because lets face it: Nest’s thermostat is a hot-ticket item because it fuses design with functionality in a way that’s innovative, much like Apple’s recent products have -- not just for its WiFi capability or interview-style interface.

Protection of intellectual property is important, and we must take active steps as a community to find the best solutions to issues which arise out of our new technologies with regard to those protections. But we should not stifle innovation and improvement through overly broad restrictions on the creation of products and ideas.