Nest, the Poster Child for the Smart Home, Is Having Relationship Issues

January 21, 2016, 4:45 PM UTC
Nest Labs Inc.
Courtesy of Nest

Like any hardware provider, Nest has faced some challenges that have alienated some customers.

Most recently, the Alphabet-owned (GOOG) connected thermostat company has been working through a still-unresolved internal server issue that has led to frustrations with partners in its Works with Nest program. It’s known about the issue for more than a month.

One of those customers is Nick Bilton, a writer for the New York Times. Bilton is one of a select few people who experienced a software glitch that drained the battery on his Nest thermostat and left him with a cold home in the middle of the winter. (The glitch only affects second-generation Nest thermostats.) Expectedly, he wrote a story about it in the nation’s paper of record.

In December, I had my own, different issue that also affected a small group of Nest customers. My second-generation thermostat would randomly crank up the heat in the middle of the night, from my 68-degrees-Fahrenheit setting to 76 degrees, my summertime air-conditioning setting.

When I tweeted about the issue, I received half a dozen or so replies from similarly affected people and an email from Nest PR and support.

After taking my Nest information, the company said it had pinpointed the problem, laying the blame on my link between the Nest and my Chamberlain MyQ garage-door opener. I had tied the two services together so that when I left my house, the garage door would tell the Nest to go into “Away” mode to reduce the A/C or heating bill.

Nest couldn’t explain why my garage door was mysteriously communicating with my Nest at 4:30 a.m., let alone why it was telling it to jack up the heat when it didn’t have the ability to control temperature in the first place. I disabled the link anyway.

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When I asked Chamberlain for more information about the issue, it recommended that I follow Nest’s instructions while it looked into things.

A few nights later, the Nest again tried to roast my family alive. This time the company blamed the problem on the integration with my Jawbone fitness tracker and asked me to disable that. After I did so, the problem disappeared.

Charlie Wood, CEO of Numerous, an Austin, Texas company that makes a productivity app of the same name, has experienced the same sudden heating issue on some of his five Nest thermostats. He doesn’t have a Chamberlain MyQ linked to any of them.

He does however, have an idea of what was going on. Wood’s Numerous app can read the temperature from the Nest app and display it on a person’s mobile phone or tablet. It doesn’t have permission to change the temperature, only to reflect it. “I know this because I wrote that code,” he says.

Around the same time I was experiencing my own Nest issues, Wood received a call from an angry customer who had been told by Nest that Wood’s app was causing her thermostat to crank the heat in the middle of the night. Wood, confused, told the customer he’d figure it out. Then he called Nest.

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His Nest contact escalated the call and an engineer agreed with Wood that his app couldn’t be changing the temperature. He said that he’d get back to Wood. That was about two months ago. Wood still hasn’t heard back.

“That puts us in a really awkward spot,” he says. “Our customers are telling us, ‘This is important to me because it costs me money.’ We’re now in the spot where Nest is giving [our customers] incorrect information. Nest is pointing the finger at us and that is wrong.”

Nest only accused Chamberlain of causing problems with its thermostat for about 48 hours. But its quick exoneration came only because I had my doubts about the technological validity of the claim and because I was pressuring Nest. Cory Sorice, a vice president of marketing with Chamberlain, confirmed that its MyQ device does not have the ability to change or set temperature control on a Nest thermostat.

He added that Chamberlain has not received calls from other customers experiencing the problem. “In fact, we’ve had very few customer support calls related to our Nest integration at all,” Sorice added.

In talking to other Nest partners I heard of only one additional instance of Nest incorrectly blaming a partner for the erratic behavior of its thermostat.

One Nest partner, who declined to be named to preserve his business relationship with the company, said that Nest being quick with the blame didn’t surprise him, citing a culture of arrogance at the company. When something went wrong during integration testing between his device and Nest’s, problems were first blamed on his servers and team. That attitude is changing, he added, as more services appear that work with Nest devices but don’t require direct integration.

Nest’s Greg Hu, head of the Works with Nest program, acknowledged that Nest continues its work on a server issue that makes it difficult for the company to pinpoint partner integration issues. “It’s in the process of being corrected, and it will be,” he told Fortune. More than 100 devices are part of the Works with Nest program, he said, and the company receives few support calls about them—so few, in fact, that he can listen to all of them. (Hu declined to specify how many support calls the program receives.)

Nest said in October that one in eight homes with a Nest product also have activated a Works with Nest device. It’s the only number the company shares about the size and scope of the program. Nest has many partners; most of them are likely happy, just as most of its consumer customers are likely happy. But Nest remains the poster child for the smart home, and its missteps take on outsized importance. Hopefully it can fix its issues before Nick Bilton and yours truly get wind of it.

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