Tony Fadell, the gadget king of Silicon Valley, was easy to miss in the media room at Munich’s DLD Conference earlier this week. The chief executive of Nest Labs sat perched by the window, quietly checking his phone as Arianna Huffington stood talking to a TV reporter nearby. As people milled about, looking for faces to meet, none approached the man who’d just sold his company to Google (GOOG) for $3.2 billion. One woman even asked an attendant when the “Nest guy” was due to speak, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was seated a few feet away.
Like his products, Fadell doesn’t come in a flashy package. But he’s become a more intimidating one since announcing the Google deal on Jan. 13. While his sale price sparked fresh interest in Nest’s two products—a thermostat that “learns” your preferences, and a Wi-Fi-enabled smoke and carbon monoxide alarm—Fadell’s choice of partner stoked fears. To critics, his sleek networked devices became powerful weapons for Google to track people in new ways and profit from those private details.
Despite all the questions about privacy, Fadell hasn’t lost sight of what Google can give Nest: reach. Having led the team that designed the iPod (AAPL), he’s passionate about making beautiful, intuitive devices. But the only way to change the world, he says, is to connect them to a broader network. The goal isn’t just to save energy costs or have more comfortable, safe homes. It’s to have the technology fade into the background so it seamlessly integrates with your life and helps prompt smarter decisions. “You know the No. 1 reason a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?” asks Fadell. “The furnace isn’t working.” Ideally, that monitor could talk to the one controlling the furnace in such situations, and instruct it to turn off.
That’s what Fadell calls a smart home. “Just because something can be connected to the Internet doesn’t mean it should be,” he says. “Putting an iPad on the front of the fridge doesn’t do much, except to give you one more device to manage.”
Fadell doesn’t really care about your grocery list. He wants to help you make smarter decisions and live in a smarter environment. In short, he says, “we’re really trying to change the world.” That’s the kind of bold rallying cry you hear at Google. As they join forces in that quest, Fadell knows the biggest challenge is how you get there.