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Ahead of I/O, Google's Nest Labs Opens the Door to Third-Party App Makers

More Nest news for people who really love their Nests.

Vjeran Pavic

Nest Labs, the Google-owned maker of Internet-connected thermostats and smoke detectors, is finally opening up its software to third-party app developers, who can now create apps around Nest’s existing products for the “smart” home.

The move comes several months after Nest initially said it would open up its API, or application programming interface, and just as the market for smart-home technology is heating up.

Nest says that app makers will be able to take advantage of a handful of key parts of the API, like basic thermostat control, read capabilities, “ETA” signals and energy surges.

So, what does this all mean for consumers?

Well, if you’re lucky enough to have a Mercedes, an iPhone and a Nest, your car could potentially send a signal through iOS to your Nest thermostat when you’re headed home and automatically adjust the temperature.

Mercedes is just one partner Nest has been working with; others include Whirlpool (for energy-efficient washer-and-dryer management), Jawbone (your wristband knows you’re awake, so your Nest adjusts the temp accordingly), Chamberlain (for syncing your garage door with temperature adjustments) and LifX, which makes a WiFi-connected light bulb (your light bulbs will flash red if your Nest Protect smoke alarm is going off).

Nest first announced last September that it planned to open up its proprietary devices to outside app makers. “This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but we want to be very thoughtful about it and make sure there is a customer experience that’s Nest-like, top to bottom,” said Nest senior product manager Greg Hu.

It’s also likely one of many software-centric announcements we’ll hear this week during Google’s annual developers conference.

And while we’re on the topic of obvious, one more point: Nest still has plenty of competition in the smart-home arena, both on the hardware and software side.

Startups like SmartThings and Revolv sell smart hubs, usually for around a couple hundred dollars, that act as wireless command centers for Internet-connected gadgets around the home, like light bulbs, wall switches and motion sensors.

New York-based Quirky has partnered with General Electric on a brand-new, smart-home focused arm called Wink. Honeywell, which in 2012 filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against Nest Labs, recently released a Wi-Fi-connected thermostat called the Lyric that has a sleek new design and promises convenience and energy savings.

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is Apple, which announced plans for a home automation software kit during its developers conference in early June.

Nest Labs has made it clear that it is exploring areas of the home beyond thermostats and smoke alarms — and its $555 million acquisition of Dropcam just last week underscores that.

But from a consumer standpoint, one thing’s certain: Few people want to deal with complicated setups or use a dozen different mobile apps to control various functions of a modern home, making it even more critical for the players in the space to establish themselves as the go-to platform.

The emergence of the smart home also brings some security concerns.

“The rush to get new products to market, and the emphasis on user-friendly bells and whistles, can often take priority over security, resulting in hardware and software full of vulnerabilities that can be exploited,” said Will Pelgrin, the president and chief executive of the Center for Internet Security. “As consumers we should be reading the fine print, and asking questions like ‘Who will have access to my data and how much of it? Is the data being stored and transmitted in a secure manner?’”

Nest’s Hu said its app developers will go through an approval process once they’ve amassed enough users, and that Nest uses industry-standard encryption technology to protect its customer data. Hu also said that there are limitations around what third-party app makers can and can’t control with Nest products.

“With the Nest Protect [smoke and carbon monoxide detector], you can only read event states, so you can’t control the device itself,” Hu said. “And on the thermostat, the API is very basic. Let’s put it this way — developers cannot create irreparable harm to your HVAC system through this.”

Nest’s developer platform opens up tonight; current product users will be able to access new apps from within the existing Nest app.

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