Google Buys Nest Labs for $3.2B

Is this the beginning of Google's home automation domination strategy?

3 min read
Google Buys Nest Labs for $3.2B

Google has purchased Nest Labs, the maker of smart thermostats and smoke alarms, for $3.2 billion.

Nest Labs, founded by Apple alums, first came on the scene in 2011 with its digital learning thermostat that has since shaken up the staid world of residential temperature control.

The move by Google pushes it further into the burgeoning world of connected homes, and raises privacy questions for those who have installed Nest thermostats in their homes.

“Google likes to know everything they can about us, so I suppose devices that are monitoring what’s going on in our homes is another excellent way for them to gather that information,” Danny Sullivan, a Google analyst, told The New York Times. Nest’s CEO, Tony Fadell, has said that Google will honor Nest’s privacy policy, which says the company will use customer information only for its product and services.

So far, Nest has tackled only thermostats and smoke detectors, but it has far larger plans that aren’t entirely clear at this time. Last fall, the company opened up its closed system with a developer program that will launch this year. The first partner is Control4, a home automation company, but many other companies will likely want to integrate with the darling of the thermostat market.

The reality is that the thermostat is just the beginning. Nest would ideally like to be the platform for the entire connected home. Some have speculated that the Nest Protect smoke detector, which would be in more rooms than the thermostats, could act as networking hubs.

“Google has the business resources, global scale and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software and services for the home globally,” Fadell said in a statement on Monday. “And our company visions are well aligned—we both believe in letting technology do the hard work behind the scenes so people can get on with the things that matter in life.”

Nest is already a direct threat to legacy thermostat companies, such as Honeywell, which sued Nest for patent infringement. Other companies that build digital smart thermostats that can be controlled from a smart phone might view Nest’s high profile and Google backing as a benefit because they will likely raise the awareness of the entire market. If Nest's prices stay high, consumers could take a closer look at other products with similar features at lower price points. 

But Google did not give up more than $3 billion just to dominate the thermostat market. Google previously had a home energy efficiency platform, PowerMeter, which it closed down in 2011. Home energy, however, is just one small piece of the puzzle. Google wants a stake in the coming Internet of Things, which is mostly about comfort, convenience and control throughout the home—even if the two companies wouldn’t speculate what that may look like when the deal was announced.

Nest will now pit itself against home networking providers. Security companies like ADT and have offerings that include smart thermostats, lighting and security features that can all be controlled from a smartphone, as do cable providers such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Even with Nest's big brains and Google's deep pockets, building a seamless home network that allows disparate devices to talk to each other is still off on the horizon. Various groups, such as the AllSeen Alliance and the Internet of Things (IoT) Consortium are working on open-source standards to move the market forward.

“This is really early days,” Nest co-founder Matt Rogers said last week at a panel discussion about the connected home at CES 2014. “It reminds me of the days when we use to have these Internet portals. Now, there’s all these other services, like Google Now, where it just sends you an alert that you need to go to the airport now. That experience hasn’t transferred to the home yet, but it will in the next few years.”

The acquisition of Nest is Google’s second largest to date. The largest was the 2011 purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion.

Photo: Nest Labs


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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.