If you’re still trying to understand Google’s acquisition of smart home company Nest, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what Google knows and doesn’t know about you right now.

At any given time Google, through its various services and devices, knows, well, a lot:

  1. What you’re searching for
  2. What you are talking about when you email friends (and, through Google+, who those friends are)
  3. Where you live, and work, how long you stay at either location each day
  4. What you’re watching on your phone, tablet, or television
  5. Where you are in the world, and, with Glass, what you’re looking at

And that’s just what I could come up with off the top of my head.

If you connect the dots here, it should be clear what Google doesn’t know, and where Nest fits in. Google has no idea what your energy consumption habits are, a data void that makes it impossible for it to make other, more significant insights.

Besides Nest’s significant design and engineering chops, that’s really what Google stands to gain here: Another major data source that will help it understand how people live even when they aren’t plugged into Google’s services. Up until now Google just hasn’t had this kind of hook into the average household.

This is even more significant when you consider features like the Nest thermostat’s motion detector, which can tell it when you’re home and adjust heating settings accordingly. Imagine how much that kind of data can teach Google.

In other words, the Nest acquisition fits very much within Google’s core mission. “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That mission is vague, but it’s that very vagueness that gives Google complete latitude to reach into and organize just about every data source it wants — from things as insignificant as your email conversations, to the entirety of the world’s literature. To Google, understanding your Internet habits and mapping the whole earth really aren’t all that different.

That reality is ultimately why Google’s Nest acquisition makes so much sense. Like Google, Nest is a company that wants to understand people better than they understand themselves.

While Nest has long presented itself as focused on “reinventing unloved products,” the company’s real potential has always been in how it can use its devices to learn and adapt to how people use them. This leads to lower energy costs, sure, but it is also the basis for something that looks a lot like an operating system for the home.


Above: Nest’s Matt Rogers(L) and Tony Fadell(R) with Google’s Larry Page in the middle. (Photo credit: Nest)

Image Credit: Nest

Nest + Google = The Home OS

This is why it’s impossible not to imagine data from Nest’s devices flowing into Google’s products down the line. Consider how Nest data could be used in Google Now, which already uses data from services like Google Maps and Gmail to give users predictive information and alerts before they realize they need them. Google Now is the future of Google, and, by proxy, Nest. That much is certain.

The problem, though, is that Nest’s privacy policies prevent the sort of data sharing that right now seems so inevitable — at least if you ask Nest itself. In a blog post published shortly after the acquisition was announced, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers said that “Nest data will stay with Nest” and that the company wasn’t changing its Terms of Service.

“Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change,” Rogers wrote.

Rogers’ response is, at best, a non-answer to the Google data sharing question, which he doesn’t exactly rule out. More, it would be absurdly naive to hold Nest’s entire future to the comments it’s making on the day of its acquisition. The tech world changes quickly, and Google has repeatedly shown that it’s not shy about changing any data policies that stand in the way of its long-term goals.

A better answer to the data sharing question comes from Nest CEO Tony Fadell, who was understandably vague in his response to whether Nest would one day change its privacy policy to suit Google’s needs: “I’m not gonna say never,” he told The Verge.

So it’s certainly safe to assume that Nest’s data will before long wind up somewhere in Google’s products. Google may be increasingly interested in hardware, but it didn’t spend $3.2 billion just to help Nest build more thermostats and smoke detectors (as well-designed as they are).

Basically, don’t forget this: Whatever data Nest collects doesn’t belong to Nest anymore — it belongs to Google.

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