Thursday, April 7, 2016

Who are Nest's customers?

Tim Lee reports on Nest's recent troubles:
Nest's smart thermostat has some valuable features that pre-internet thermostats were missing. But they don't offer the kind of revolutionary capabilities that caused people to line up to buy an iPhone. We just don't interact with our thermostats that much, so there's only so much a better thermostat can do to improve our lives.
The article is probably correct that smart appliances won't really take off until the technology gets so cheap as to make it a commodity, undermining Nest's first-mover advantage. But considering the current situation, I'm genuinely unsure who exactly Nest is trying to sell to.

Expensive smart appliances only make sense for homeowners. Young, tech-savvy consumers that drive trends are disproportionately renting apartments. Those with higher incomes sufficient to plausibly buy Nests are disproportionately in cities being crushed by high housing prices, cutting into disposable income.

Among moderately wealthy homeowners, Nest suffers from another disadvantage: it's not a very good positional good. Cars, houses, clothes--these are all things that signal status and class in a very public way. Smart appliances, outside the occasional dinner party, simply aren't that sexy or impressive.

Any financial benefits from efficiency gains are self-defeating, because the people who might buy Nests are already wealthy enough to not be bothered by utility costs.

This leaves conspicuous-consumption type greens, but other technologies like solar cells or air travel carbon offsets are more logically tight with the ideas and culture of environmentalism. Repositioning the Nest as an explicitly environmentalist good could boost its cache in that circle, but would further narrow its consumer base.

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