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Honeywell Files Patent Lawsuit Against Smart Thermostat Developer Nest (techcrunch.com)
292 points by ryanwaggoner 1872 days ago | hide | past | web | 108 comments | favorite

Congratulations, Nest!

You're officially successful enough to be sued by entrenched non-innovators who took out overly broad patents so that they would be able to milk anyone who successfully built and marketed a product.

Honeywell makes damn near every wall thermostat I've ever seen, so it's not like they haven't had time to think about this application area.

Can you please tell me why you think Honeywell is a non-innovator? Is it because they don't make shiny boxes to put on the wall of your home? Honeywell is well established as an innovator in advanced HVAC command and control for commercial buildings.

Advanced HVAC for commercial buildings perhaps, but not for homes. Every thermostat I've seen that can do half of what Nest is doing is covered in about 50 buttons, and the ownership manual is a 70 page behemoth. It's like every thermostat manufacturer out there read The Design of Everyday Things and decided to do the exact opposite.

As I note above, Honeywell does have a color touchscreen, no-button, net-connected programmable thermostat that costs about what the Nest thermostat costs. For homes.

But, stupidly, they don't sell it in stores, they sell it through HVAC contractors, so do-it-yourselfers won't run into them at the hardware store.

They sell it to contractors at the price of the Nest. Once the contractors add their own margin, not including the install, it's double the price of the nest.

Yeah, as I note in another comment, Nest isn't so much taking advantage of lagging thermostat technology, they're taking advantage of the crappy outdated distribution model.

So, you're saying they're pirates.

No, they're selling their own product, in channels where gadget freaks and DIY types will encounter it.

Maybe that's the lesson they need to learn.

True. You'd think that by now, with everyone having wifi, they would make a thermostat you could sync with you calendar, or at least turn on and off from your iphone.

Well, actually they do make this(1) but it's got a hefty price tag and it's made for enterprise users, not homes.

(1) http://www.forwardthinking.honeywell.com/products/wireless/t...

No, it's for residential use also:


"Prestige Comfort Systems have Honeywell RedLINKTM technology inside - giving you endless possibilities for controlling and monitoring comfort inside your home"

And yet when was the last time you heard of someone having to apply a patch to the firmware on their thermostat?

Not all patches are bad. They can be very beneficial, adding new features, for instance.

And there's the obvious bug fixing. You are stuck with a defective device if you can't update it.

>Every thermostat I've seen that can do half of what Nest is doing is covered in about 50 buttons

Remove control and it's easy to remove buttons. There is no brilliant design or innovation there. Whether the removed control is logical or beneficial, however, is a completely different matter -- there is absolutely zero evidence that the Nest delivers on the farfetched promises it makes.

I personally can't believe it has gotten as much attention as it has. It is a non-solution for a non-problem. The single and only reason it got coverage was the Apple angle.

>Remove control and it's easy to remove buttons. There is no brilliant design or innovation there.

I beg to differ. Deciding which control to remove is the essence of brilliant design and innovation. To paraphrase Einstein, good design is as simple as possible, and no simpler.

The iPod didn't allow you to manage files on your device, letting it be simpler than Creative's products. Yes, it also overcame a bunch of other barriers (physical interface, size, skipping, transfer speed, etc), but removing what everyone erroneously assumed was essential certainly contributed to their success. It's no surprise that the Nest guys are using the same playbook.

You sound like the slashdot review of the iPod: even if all of the features were possible before does not mean there's no benefit to producing a solid, high-quality implementation.

As for Nest's claims, I assume you're talking about energy savings and, if so, are so very, very wrong: I'm a software developer and rarely adjusted the program on my old Honeywell thermostat because it took a minimum of 7 * 3 button clicks (morning, evening, night for each day of the week) simply to navigate through the program. I'm rather confident that the average American is even less likely to put up with all of that clicking and simply leaves at anything which isn't uncomfortable, even if it does waste power.

You sound like the slashdot review of the iPod

Not really, unless your world is binary. There are a lot of extremely refined, slick implementations out there. You don't know about them because they couldn't be called the "ipod of thermostats" (with leading comparisons with the ugliest, most rudimentary thermostats, as if the giant industry doesn't exist).

As for Nest's claims, I assume you're talking about energy savings and, if so, are so very, very wrong...I'm rather confident that the average American...

It is interesting how you arrived at such an energy claim with no clear avenue between the beginning and the end.

You asserted that it was “a non-solution for a non-problem” - the onus is on you to explain why the stated problems aren't real or how the Nest doesn't solve them.

As for the promise of saving energy, either reading Nest's citations or spending a second or two on Google might prove educational as to the current gap between what is technically possible and what people actually do:


* Is it because they don't make shiny boxes to put on the wall of your home?*

Well, yes, that's exactly what he's saying, because that's exactly the market Nest is targeting. What's your point?

Just because someone isn't targeting you doesn't mean they aren't innovating.

It reeks of HN bias that no one in their right mind should ever become an employee of some corporation because they aren't making a shiny box or a X, Y, Z website (substitute your favorite tech of the month for X, Y, and Z)

If you're not innovating in an area, you aren't furthering "the Progress of Science and useful Arts". Unfortunately, 35 U.S.C. § 271(d)(4) makes it ok to do nothing with a patent except sue, so you aren't doing anything illegal, but you sure as hell are gaming the system.

"Can you please tell me why you think Honeywell is a non-innovator?"

In general, I wouldn't defend that statement (which isn't mine). But I would defend the statement that these are either not "innovations", or certainly are innovations so obvious they are mostly or entirely not worthy of government-granted monopoly: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3558260

Honeywell makes fancy full-color LCD touch-screen thermostats with internet connectivity, friendly graphics showing the weather, etc.


But I don't think they sell them in regular stores much, so you don't see them on the rack at Home Depot. You only see the cheaper lower-end models with all the buttons.

Honeywell sells their $250 fancy thermostats through HVAC contractors, so do-it-yourself types probably won't encounter them.

Nest might not be taking advantage of a gap in technology in the thermostat market, so much as taking advantage of a flawed distribution model.

edit: "... so it's not like they haven't had time to think about this application area [and bring a product to market already.]."

Further proof that Congress has failed to create a patent system that "promotes the Sciences and the useful Arts"

> Honeywell makes damn near every wall thermostat I've ever seen

...and now we have a slightly improved understanding of why that is, since the underlying technology is not highly advanced.

This is a sign that Nest has found a great market. I don't mean smart thermostats, but in accessible premium home technology (as you can tell, their name is more general than thermostats).

There are many areas of technology in the home that are controlled by very old companies that are in markets that are very slow to innovate. The real proof of this is in these patents (q.v.), which detail seemingly near-archaic technology. Seriously, this is their state of the art? These are exactly the kind of competitors you want to have.

That is a byproduct of the fact that brands and design for home technology last a long, long time. Recently, I replaced my gas water heater valve and discovered that it's a part that's been around since the 1950's in its current design. Proven technology sticks around. Similarly, Honeywell has been in thermostats since forever.

Finally, the margins in this business can be pretty impressive. There are home appliances and technology products whose premium versions cost twice as much as the regular version even though they're not much different. Some people are just willing to spend a good bit more for the absolute best. Very much an Apple market strategy (i.e. high-capacity iPods).

I hope to see Nest introduce more devices like their learning thermostat soon, as well as a new way for them to communicate and be controlled which can hopefully improve on and replace the ancient X10 automation standard. Nest is in a great position right now.

For reference, here are the seven patents in question.

7,634,504 - Natural Language Installer Set Up for Controller (http://www.google.com/patents/US7634504) - The claims really are as broad as the title implies, claiming to cover any system that presents the user questions in natural language, allows the user to select among multiple choices, and then modifies the HVAC settings based on their response.

7,142,948 - Controller Interface with Dynamic Schedule Display (http://www.google.com/patents/US7142948) - Claims to cover any controller that can change temperature from one temperature to a second temperature, while displaying an ETA for reaching the second temperature.

7,584,899 - HVAC Controller (http://www.google.com/patents/US7584899) - Claims the idea of having a movable housing over a display that, when rotated, changes an HVAC-system parameter that is reflected on that display.

7,159,789 - Thermostat with Mechanical User Interface (http://www.google.com/patents/US7159789) - A rotatable selector with several selectable positions, and a potentiometer. For an HVAC system.

7,159,790 - Thermostat with Offset Drive (http://www.google.com/patents/US7159790) - Some more rotatable-selector inventions, involving linking mechanical position and electrical signals.

7,476,988 - Power Stealing Control Devices (http://www.google.com/patents/US7476988) - Something to do with switching between primary and secondary power sources. My EE is too rusty to figure out exactly what this one is claiming without spending more time than I'd like on it.

6,975,958 - Profile Based Method for Deriving a Temperature Setpoint Using a 'Delta' Based On Cross-Indexing a Received Price-Point Level Signal (http://www.google.com/patents/US6975958) - Claim 1 is even broader than the title, claiming to have invented and patented the idea of adjusting an HVAC system's setpoints based on communicating with a remote host.

They strongly have the flavor of taking some standard control method (rotating knobs attached to potentiometers, 1950s-style feedback control & rate prediction), tacking on "for an HVAC system", and deeming the result, which applies standard control techniques in the obvious way to the domain, an "invention".

Goes to show that it's not just software patents that can be utterly ridiculous in their breadth... Here we seem to have half a dozen examples of the one-click patent applied to thermostats.

The sheer amount of obvious non-innovations that the patent office accepts is staggering.

Anecdotal personal experience being part of patent applications has showed me that almost any idea, as long as there are no mainstream examples of prior art, can be patented given time (will take 4-5 years these days) and money. Most decently smart people will come up with patentable ideas all the time, just doing their job, but won't file because they don't have the desire or resources (and don't understand why their only somewhat-novel obvious-to-them idea is patentable).

"The idea that I can be presented with a problem, set out to logically solve it with the tools at hand, and wind up with a program that could not be legally used because someone else followed the same logical steps some years ago and filed for a patent on it is horrifying." - John Carmack

It's as if patents serve to stop innovation from happening rather than help make it happen, more often than not.

Not sure if you are being sarcastic, but there is some research to back that claim (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/study_says_patents_hind...)

Will the America Invents Act change anything to this problem? Or should it require another reform?

"The sheer amount of obvious non-innovations that the patent office accepts is staggering."

You'd almost think that they were getting money for accepting patent applications...

<Edit>This is a perfect example of mismatched incentives. The patent office has a lot of incentive (in the form of attracting user fees) for issuing dubious patents, and no real disincentive for doing the same.

Well, an incentives discussion which leaves out the other party is not quite valid.

Although, if I were to take your implication correctly - there should be no incentive to take a patent or reject a patent other than its merit.

Which would in turn imply no cost on applying for a patent, except its applicability after review.

But that would also create a perverse incentive for firms to submit patents all the time - there is no cost involved, no barrier of entry and hence no loss in making the effort.

Alternatively, we could have a very quick review system, which would mean that soon after patent submission you get rejection or acceptance. Which would mean that the patent office would need significantly more funding - considering the number of patents it receives vs people who have to review.

If there was a solution which could automate the search for prior art, that would be cool, and a way to reduce the size of the work load.

I wonder though if perhaps fixing the patent office is a dead end, and that instead the patent office should be treated merely as a record holder, were you pay a fee for a shallow review and a time stamped filing, and then you need to use the court system to uphold them. Upholding patents should be much costlier than it is today. That is to say, it should be costlier if you file a claim that has no merit. That way it would be up to these assholes to determine wether or not they have patented something that is of actual value.

Thing is with all such suggestions, they inevitability are of the type: Fix complex system X by removing system X.

Its do-able, but I am certain that the law of unintended consequences was written to describe situations like these.

For example, in your suggestion, the part where we move the onus onto the courts, will gum up the courts. I live in India, where courts are constantly arbiting cases, and people know that if your case gets into court, it could be there for ever. Thats not a side effect we want to induce.

Now you could build in redundancy for that eventuality by expanding the number of people in court, justices and areas, but then in essence, you are moving the burden from department X to department N, with the added problem that those new people will be from law, and not a technical background.

I really do think that this is a case where people should just get someone whos a technocrat in charge, give him authority and funds, and then forget about it while the patent office is built back up into an institution that people respect.

Replying to myself for posterity: an EE friend assures me that the "Power Stealing Control Devices" patent is also completely standard practice, a technique of powering a device by siphoning off some current from a control circuit, which is a completely normal and not-at-all new tool in the circuit-design toolbox.

Nest is an interesting piece of hardware.

They have over 100 people, and if rumours are true have quite significant backing. Which is particularly interesting as it's hard to see on the surface where their margins come from on a device most could consider as novel and expensive.

Though there are potentially gains to be had from a smarter thermostat, the headline figures in their white papers will most likely never be realised in the real world. Most reviews and bloggers seem to get caught up in focusing on the simple heating and cooling experience.

The company on makes sense once you look at it in the context of the larger market. The silent but important features are zigbee integration (current unused), and excessive processing power. We are just on the cusp of huge smart-grid rollouts in many western countries. British gas in the UK has decided on the zigbee standard and are starting to roll out over 1000 new meters a day; with government backing for an £11bn rollout to 27 million households by 2019.

In light of these rollouts, the energy companies will be looking to capitalize on their investment (which will be mostly funded by the consumer, via higher bills). The hardest part is figuring out what the consumer face of the smart grid should look like. Expensive 'home hubs' and touch screens are a red herring - the future is distributed (every household members phone etc), yet you still need a link between the rather 'dumb but integrated' meters, and devices in the house.

In my opinion nest's game plan is to become that link. Your thermostat controls around 50% of the energy usage in your house. Eventually it has the potential to control 100%. With smart GPS integration into your phones it becomes realistic to have houses that react silently to it's various inhabitants patterns and blend those needs with the energy grids demand levels; now this is a valuable proposition. If you're an energy company absorbing several billion because of government pressure, suddenly the hardware cost of a nest doesn't seem so bad, especially if it can be offset or laid off over time.

edit; footnote - All figures are rough (off the top of my head)

Nest is an interesting piece of hardware.

I'm curious what you find so interesting about it. I've had an Ecobee thermostat (http://www.ecobee.com/solutions/home/smart/) for years and have even done silly hacks with it like integrating it with my wireless access point to detect when I'm home (http://jcs.org/ecobee) and making a SiriProxy plugin to be able control it with an iPhone (http://flic.kr/p/aNuGaF).

But even before the Ecobee, programmable and even WiFi-enabled thermostats have been around for many years and they have not gained any significant traction. My dad owns an HVAC company and they've only sold 1 or 2 Ecobee units in the years they've stocked them, with most people just opting for a schedule-based programmable thermostat.

What makes the Nest so much different? Is it just that it's pretty? Right now, their website says it costs $250. For the average person, that's probably at least a few years of energy savings needed to justify that cost.

I love logic like this.

You bought an Ecobee thermostat, integrated it with your access point, and made a SiriProxy plugin.

This is awesome but think about it for the general consumer. They just want shit to work.

This is what makes Nest different.

Where did I say that I expected anyone else to do any of that? By my own words, they were silly hacks. My question was why the Nest is different than the Ecobee or any other smart thermostat that has been around for years. They all do the same things: smartly adjust to the outside temperature and usage patterns, provide data to the user about energy use, and allow control from the Internet or wireless network.

"My question was why the Nest is different than the Ecobee or any other smart thermostat that has been around for years."

That's like asking:

- Why is the iPod different from all the mp3 players on the market?

- Why is the iPhone different from all the smart phones on the market?

- Why is the iPad different from all the tablets on the market?

None of these questions are easy to answer in full, if they were Apple would have more serious competition. The simple answer is:

Because the overall experience of owning them, for the average person, is better than with the alternatives.

None of those examples actually answer his question, they just belittle it a bit, but the original question, and in fact all of those, are very valid.

I suspect the current hype about the Nest is due to two reasons: 1) Apple people made it, and Apple is newsworthy right now; 2) it doesn't look like other thermostats, it looks easy to use and unique. I think that right now the Nest's aesthetic is getting it traction, time will tell if that's enough to get it sales.

to be honest, I remember reading on HN a similar comments about DropBox, that its a matter of setting up FTP server.

In my opinion market timing is the difference. There are a few key factors. Wifi penetration is coming over 80%. After a long drawn out process zigbee is emerging rapidly as the defacto wireless standard, and I suspect we will see this being consolidated over the next 3-6 months. Hardware costs to build a truly smart system have been driven lower by the boom in smartphone chips and batteries. The smart grid is coming, and it's government backed.

Homes HAVE to get smarter. The market dictates this. But up to this point, the cost to gain ratio has been far out of balance, not to mention the approach of poor quality touch screens and feature lists that read like a 1999 computer spec :) I agree nest is too expensive at $250, but I doubt that it will hold that price tag for long, partnerships are coming I'm sure.

It's a little like asking what made the iPhone different to the nokia of the day, or Dropbox to FTP. It's more about market timing, pricing and user experience than anything in a spec.

What else? Put bluntly; timing, founders and funding.

Ecobee's "where to buy" page points me at a bunch of HVAC contractors. Not really the sort of places where I'd come across the product while browsing.

Am I mistaken in thinking that the Ecobee is significantly more expensive than the Nest?

I'm in the US and just went through their "Where to buy" screens-- it showed a $350 price tag.

I'm in the US and saw a unit for over $400. That might have been a higher-end product.

It's just pretty drives a lot of consumer household purchases already. And nest may cost $250 now, but in 3 years it can easily just cost $50. The zeo sleep monitor had a similar price trajectory, starting at around $400 and now is around $100. Similarly with the kindle and other e-ink devices.

Not sure why you're getting attacked. I think the advantage is a combination of nicer design and better PR ("brought to you by the fathers of the iPod", etc). A very Apple-like approach to product. Which works on many folks, myself included.

What makes them different could just be that their marketing is working. Good for them.

shhh.. logic doesn't belong here when talking about former apple employees / designers / etc.

I think it's far bigger than just energy usage/control. In time, more and more devices in the home will become 'connected' in some sense. If Nest can be the first such product that people want in their homes, then I can imagine a whole ecosystem of other devices/services piggy-backing off it.

> With smart GPS integration into your phones it becomes realistic to have houses that react silently to it's various inhabitants patterns and blend those needs with the energy grids demand levels; now this is a valuable proposition.

That's an interesting point. Here in Ontario we have smart electrical meters so that the hydro company can charge you different rates depending on the time of day; running the A/C during work hours is more expensive than running it at night, and so on. It would be interesting if household devices were aware of these cost-of-power schedules so that you could put laundry in a dryer and set it to "dry in the 12 hours, whenever electricity is cheapest".

Yes exactly. And furthermore the proposition is even more interesting when you consider that as a consumer you don't actually want to think about these things.

Running the washing machine at night when it's cheapest may not be desired, rather running it when no one is home and it's off peak. Turning on alarms, switching off lights, dropping temperature automatically. Allowing individuals in the household to have their own work patterns and temperature presets etc.

The key point is that it has to be effortless. No complex interfaces or setup. Plug, play, forget. And only in the next 12-24 months do enough technologies hit critical mass to make it economically feasible.

Its internals are beautiful too. Check out the SparkFun hardware teardown: http://www.sparkfun.com/tutorials/334

Excellent post, but remember that internet providers like Comcast are taking steps to do that same thing. Nest has the hooks into the power system, but Comcast controls the gateway to the larger internet and interfacing with things like your smartphone.

How this sill interact with the ZigBee push for IPV6 integration, for the Smart Energy profile at least, is anyone's guess.

In the UK the implementation currently being rolled out actually runs the smart meter on the 2G GSM network, as a ZED (zigbee end device) the nest could actually pipe data directly to the energy companies with no other connectivity beyond the electrical grid. The company running the 2g network (vodaphone) in this case, is actually in contract directly with the energy provider. Now in terms of interfacing with your smart phone this is impractical, you still need wifi (most likely), however, considering the traffic is encrypted, I doubt that the providers really have much leverage here.

Well, yes and no. It's a lot easier to tackle the profile interoperabilty issues if you're the gateway between the ZigBee and non-ZigBee network. The energy providers don't quite have the same experience at being "user friendly" at a customer level.

Not that the company I work for really cares either way. Power companies are looking at smart grids, white good manufacturers are looking to include network functionality, and several people want to be the bridge between you and all of this. But as long as most people building ZigBee devices use our chips, we're happy.

Comcast controls one gateway into a home's internet - there are others - including wireless 3G. In fact this hn article detailed how a woman was charged for hack said gsm card tied to her smart power meter [1]

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2509967

I just sent this through Honeywell's contact page and I mean every word of it:

I'm in the market for a programmable thermostat for my house. I had been considering several units, including yours and one from Nest Labs.

Apparently you've decided that it's more important to batter competitors with the legal system than actually, you know, put your supposed patents to use building a thermostat that your potential customers actually want to buy. You seem to be under the impression that suing other companies over patents on obvious ideas will make your own products look more attractive.

It's clear that you're out of touch with your market. I don't know what unit I'm going to buy for my house, but I can promise you that it won't be a Honeywell thermostat.

I don't know what unit I'm going to buy for my house, but I can promise you that it won't be a Honeywell thermostat.

Putting aside the patent issue, if you and lots of other people send such emails, aren't you simply making it easier for Honeywell's lawyers to estimate damages owed?

Perhaps not if it can be successfully argued that such damages estimated from the emails would arise out of a boycott action due to predatory legal action?

Nicely done.

Now you get to go out there and research every thermostat manufacturer to find out which ones aren't paying a licensing fee to Honeywell for these (and other) patents.

Link to the contact page, maybe we can automate signed submissions...

Link to the contact page, maybe we can automate signed submissions...

I think there's a very good chance that I've misunderstood your comment, but - for the sake of doubt - please tell me that you're not advocating fraud :)

By "signed" I just meant a way to quickly get a lot of valid submissions. More like a petition. Not trying to bot it. There's a CAPTCHA anyway =)

It's at https://honeywell.com/Pages/contact-us.aspx . I selected that I'm a "Customer", no company, product type "Thermostats", inquiry type "Home Owner".

I don't know what unit I'm going to buy for my house, but I can promise you that it won't be a Honeywell thermostat.

Doesn't matter much, if they are still able to shut down a competitor like Nest legally, especially seeing as millions of people will continue to buy their products.

Better join some action to abolish the stupid patent laws.

Doesn't matter much, if they are still able to shut down a competitor like Nest legally, especially seeing as millions of people will continue to buy their products.

I can't do anything about millions of people, but I can do something about my own buying patterns. I can also tell others why I did so and hope they agree with me.

Is there perhaps an argument for financial activism here? While it wouldn't be super significant, let's say you bought 1000 shares of Honeywell and shorted it today. You continued this type of action for software patent litigation in the future. Eventually it might have the intended effect and actually affect their share price, which might cause these huge companies to think twice.

Doesn't hurt to do both considering the low cost of both actions.

They aren't going to try to shut down Nest. They'll just try to extract a couple dollars per thermostat in royalties.

I'm betting that any start-up company that comes out with a truly usable home robot in US will go out of business within its first year of operation. If a tiny thermostat can infringe on 7 patents, imagine how many patents will 'infringed' upon by a fully functional robot. If the same environment that we have now existed in 1970's I doubt if apple-2 would have been released.

A couple of days ago I talked to a very gifted friend of mine who is spending his days finishing up a truckload of patent applications for his current company. Something I find very sad because I think patents are inherently bad and I wish he would spend his time doing more worthwhile things.

However, in the space they operate they need patents to ward off other companies with large patent portfolios. In fact, he likened what they do to creating mine-fields. To make it really, really dangerous for other companies to even try to compete with you. And to make sure that no challengers will get uppity with you.

In any case, what stuck with me was what he said about his next startup; in his next startup he would spend most of the money on patent lawyers. Because inventing, developing and bringing an invention to market is just too risky these days. The money is better spent on rigging whatever IPR you have with patents to "increase the number of possible exit strategies".

This makes me really sad.

I'm not ready to cry for poor Nest just yet. The company has substantial funding, experienced backers/advisors, and is clearly aware of the patent environment they operate in. Heck, their About page touts how the founder Tony Fadell has authored more than 100 patents. They knew they were entering a well-covered market. If their patent work left them confident that there were OK, then the courts will see if they're right. If they chose to take a chance... this is what can happen.

Like another commenter mentioned, these are the rules of the game in the US. Complain about them and try to get them changed... I'm all for that because I think the rules are hurting innovation. But Nest is no victim here, and Honeywell isn't the devil. I'm more sympathetic to the garage shops that get hammered by big companies, but Nest is far from a garage shop. They knew what they were getting into.

Huh. I really thought the days of the (she-was|they-were)-asking-for-it-I-mean-look-at-how-(she-was-dressed|well-covered-their-market-was) argument were over. Wonders never cease, I guess.

If their patent work left them confident that there were OK, then the courts will see if they're right. If they chose to take a chance... this is what can happen.

The only trouble with that statement is that it's completely incoherent. On the most charitable reading of it, there is no way not to "take a chance." This is, in fact, the very thing that you're obscuring, whether by accident or design. If the patent system is a structural quagmire that stifles innovation, then that is the problem precisely because "due diligence" is impossible.

Incredibly, you continue:

But Nest is no victim here...

Yes. Yes, they are. They may be an affluent victim. An able victim. But a victim nonetheless. And, as long as this kind of victimization is allowed to continue, innovation will continue to carry a market-altering penalty that retards human progress. And, lest you think I'm being grandiose in my assessment of this thermostat as an example of human progress, it saves energy, and energy is one of the more pressing problems facing humanity.

They knew what they were getting into.

"But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, look at how short that skirt was, and she decided to walk home on a Friday night! Drunk! Who's the real victim here? My client couldn't resist!"

That's a pretty ridiculous comparison.

Yes. Yes, they are. They may be an affluent victim. An able victim.

... who, as the GP points out, played the game with the best of them. Live by the patent sword, die by the patent sword.

I like the idea someone posted on HN a few months ago; it should be possible to "opt out" of the patent system entirely. You can't be sued for patent infringement, but you also can't hold any patents yourself. Let's do that, and watch the market determine whether patents are really good for innovation or not.

>Live by the patent sword, die by the patent sword.

So if Nest had owned no patents, Honeywell would not have sued them? I find this exceedingly hard to believe.

> I like the idea someone posted on HN a few months ago; it should be possible to "opt out" of the patent system entirely.

This is a stupid idea.

Basically, anyone who does actually invent something that's legitimately worth patenting (by whatever metric you please), then patents it and (as required by the process of patenting) details the invention, somebody can just come along and take that work and use it and the inventor gets screwed.

Fix the patent system or ditch it. The opt-out idea, though, is nonsensical.

It would be too simple to split a company into a subsidiary that owned and monetized patents and a parent that made real products.

Not if the punishment for doing that was execution of the board and all shareholders >5%.

As someone in the startup HVAC Optimization industry, it really pains me to see this. To be fair, Nest scares the crap out of me as the proverbial Goliath to our David, luckily we're not in the same markets (for now). If Honeywell is throwing these types of accusations at them, what chance does my company have?

I understand that tech patents are just a part of the business, but coming from the little guy here, how do I not get slapped with a lawsuit for having an idea?

You can let this comment float to the bottom, but I just want to say that this makes me want to cry. When this product came out, it gave me so much hope for a few ideas that I've been working on related to tuning HVAC and lighting with better interfaces and control systems. Now I'm incredibly discouraged.

Thanks US patent system.

They look pretty smart to me


seriously every time someone sues someone else about a patent the whole world screams bloody murder.

sure Honeywell's devices does not look like they come out of an apple lab but I think they have a right to protect their IP.

I know we all want patents to die, but until then, perhaps a more palatable way to deal with the problem...

How about: If a patent is not implemented in a marketed product within two years (for a mechanical product) and 4 (or 5 years for a chemical product), the patent is void. In other words, no more patenting things and then sitting on them and suing others. Also, only certain entities would be able to patent something and then license it out (like the government, universities, legitimate research outfits, etc.).

Just thinking off the top of my head here.

> How about: If a patent is not implemented in a marketed product within two years (for a mechanical product) and 4 (or 5 years for a chemical product), the patent is void. In other words, no more patenting things and then sitting on them and suing others. Also, only certain entities would be able to patent something and then license it out (like the government, universities, legitimate research outfits, etc.).

I think that cure would be worse than the disease. It'd be a major incentive for large companies to say "no thanks" to small inventors, knowing that they can just copy it two years later.

I would say that if the patent holder doesn't manufacture a product containing the same patents and similar functionality, that there should be a compulsory license, the company should be required to license those patents. That is, If you're not making it, you're not allowed to stand in someone else's way.

That doesn't solve the problem. Anyone acting as a patent troll could just create a proof of concept; it wouldn't add significantly to their expenses in most cases. I don't think you could safely define "marketed product" in any way that excludes such cases, without effectively limiting the use of patents to large companies. Meanwhile, companies building actual products can still create a giant pile of excessively broad patents which apply to your product, and which also apply to any better product that tries to displace yours. That doesn't make them better than the patent trolls in any way that matters to the end user.

By definition, patents exist to prevent competition. If you build a product, it should compete with everything else. If you can't stand competition, get out of the way of those who can.

The Nest is the thermostat that Honeywell should have made. I hope that the two parties can come to an agreement that allows the Nest to stay on the market and the Nest team to continue innovating.

This is likely extremely naive: But would requiring a patent-filer to demonstrate a working implementation help mitigate this sort of thing? From what I can tell, Honeywell at least had the foresight to know where the tech was heading, but seemingly exerted no actual effort in getting there. Maybe I'm wrong about that - but this pattern seems to be true for patent trolls, at least.

If that's the case, they're basically building an artificial moat. So what now? Does Honeywell sue Nest out of existence? Require Nest license their patent? What are some likely goals and motives? What happens now?

There's a big difference between saying we WANT to go the moon, versus we WENT to the moon, or even we CAN go to the moon.

My guess is that they did actually have working prototypes; some of the patents have fairly detailed drawings. Some of the things being claimed in the patents aren't even particularly hard to build; standard feedback-control-system stuff that no doubt some Honeywell engineer could prototype. They just never brought them to market, which is a different issue.

This is the sort of patent suit that I find revolting, and I suspect I'm not alone on HN in feeling that way.

But does anyone else see a continuum between this and the dustup over the 5-word already-derivative "stay focused & keep shipping" poster last week?

Should we be upset about this and not that?

US citizens at least, should be upset about the state of patents in the US. I don't begrudge companies playing the game--for them it is a fact of life in US business.

What I take issue with is the granting of such trivial patents in the first place.

edit: (non-trivial --> trivial)

If you can't innovate, sue. Sad to think that this line of reasoning will persist.

I doubt they can't innovate so much as have no interest in spending the money needed to do so, and probably found that suing the new competitor is cheaper than working hard enough to compete with them.

I'm not a fan of patents at all, but at the very least we should make having a product in the market as an absolute minimum for defending it. No product in market === no patent for you.

I'm also not a fan of patents1, but having to have a product in the market in order to defend a patent just introduces another, different type of breakage.

How hard would it have been for Honeywell to slap out a craptacular prototype product to be "in the market" and then sue Nest? Not hard, if they cared to do it.

How hard would it be for Nest (or another small company), if they had the original patent, to bring a product to the market in order to qualify to sue Honeywell? Maybe not impossible, but surely harder than the reverse.

If I grant that patents should exist, or at least that they DO exist, it seems reasonable that reducing an invention to practice (but not necessarily to marketability) is enough to go seek a patent, such that you could then seek funding or partnership opportunities at far more favorable terms than if all you had was a secret invention that you couldn't patent until you were able to bring it to market with money you didn't have and couldn't get.

1-excepting perhaps in drug discovery cases, where I am less certain of what I think

How would that work exactly? You end up turning the patent from protecting an idea/invention into protecting who can get a product manufactured first. In particular, it seems trivial for your manufacturing partners to steal your patent by delaying delivery and putting your product on the market instead of you. The little guy is the one who loses.

Or did you think companies would follow the guidelines in good faith??

Defending it != acquiring it. It seems reasonable that if your going to sue for X$ in damages you need to have an actual product in the market, or at least licence your patent to someone who actually makes it.

Take this case for example. Honeywell would simply throw together a crappy product and sell a couple of hundred of them just so they could put Nest out of business. There needs to be greater reform IMO.

Honeywell has no choice but to licence their patents to Nest. The question is simply are the patents valid, did Nest infringe, and how much can Honeywell charge Nest. That said, if a company as large as Honeywell can only point to say 50,000$ in sales for their patent protected product it's hard for them to justify outrageous licencing fees.

I don't dispute this at all, but patent reform isn't going to achieve what we want overnight. Requiring a product in the market is at least a step in the direction of eroding the position of most patent trolls. Once we've achieved that, the next step is to further raise the bar for what is defensible.

If I were Honeywell...

1. I sue Nest, freak them out. 2. I offer to buy them out on the cheap. 3. Nest sells themselves "gracefully". 4. Techcrunch: "Honeywell acquires Nest for $1 million!" 5. Honeywell says: "Nest acquisition will enhance our shareholders value." 6. Honeywell sells a little bit of Nest product. 7. End game: Honeywell decides that there's not enough demand for Nest product. Nest team is fired. Product dies.

Interesting theory, but unlikely (IMO).

Given the people involved in NEST, and the capital behind them, this isn't "two easily scared dorm-room occupants". Most likely patent lawsuits were anticipated, and potentially even budgeted for in terms of licensing costs being assumed at some point.

This is, IMO, another example of a company (Honeywell) with a book of patents they don't truly understand how to leverage on their own making a money-grab. I would wager a guess that this plays out very uninterestingly overall.

Patents should be about encouraging inventors to reveal their inventions and methods that would otherwise remain secret and granting them the 20 years monopoly for that. It's not a license to choose any idea that is obvious to one skilled in the art after a purely superficial observation of the device in action.

Ahh, the Streisand effect.

Show me where to buy one of these!

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