Tony Fadell Cleans His Garage – TechCrunch

“Whoever wants to see What did I discover when I cleaned out my garage and found pictures of everything I’ve ever done?” Tony Fadell tweeted in mid-April. It was a rhetorical question. Anyone with a passing interest in the last two decades in consumer hardware would jump at the opportunity to see what the man behind the iPod, iPhone and Nest Thermostat had hidden in those giant Home Depot boxes.

Literal garage cleaning preceded metaphorical variety, with this week’s publication of “Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making.” The book traces Fadell’s path to some of the most iconic hardware designs in consumer electronics. He is mainly concerned with the “why” of product design. It’s a word he uses over 50 times over the course of our 30-minute conversation.

We reached out to Fadell’s team after the tweet, asking if we could get into the garage sale. They happily complied, uploading a dozen images that provide a rough guide to the product designer’s career, from his early days to his time at Nest.

The story begins in the early 1990s, when he joined General Magic, fresh out of the University of Michigan. The Apple spinoff’s trials and tribulations were highlighted in a 2018 documentary of the same name that features Fadell among the talking heads.

“The reason you should care about the General Magic story is that it involves something fundamental, and that is: failure is not the end, failure is actually the beginning,” says the company spokesperson at the end. from the trailer and at the top. of the movie.

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

Above is a prototype of one of General Magic’s spectacular and awe-inspiring failures, the Walkabout.

“All we had were big boards and a big LCD,” explains Fadell. “That was something I had to work on when I was there. You look at the technology of the time and we were solving problems ourselves. We weren’t solving problems that people had. Very few people had email in 1991, 92. Nobody was downloading apps – it wasn’t fast enough to behold. Even mobile/wireless communications. Tickets were issued. You could book trips. There was still no web. There was no Wi-Fi, cell phones, data networks.”

Timing, as they say, is everything. Fifteen years before the iPhone arrived, it’s safe to say the Walkabout arrived a little early to the party. Operating largely in secrecy, the company sought to address the Internet’s pain points a decade before they were on most people’s radar.

“I think a lot of people were dreaming about these things,” explains Fadell. “We were one of the first incarnations of really putting these things together well before technology – or more importantly, society – was ready for it. They didn’t know they would have these problems because they didn’t have them until 15 years later. When you’re designing in that kind of vacuum, that’s what comes out. It was fantastic. Everyone’s like, ‘this is so cool, but why do I need this?’”

This brings us to the “why”. Or the “why, why, why,” as Fadell excitedly puts it. It’s the three-word question any product designer must answer before getting to the “how, how, how” – as tempting as it is to tackle that second part first. It’s one of those concepts that are obvious in hindsight but difficult in the middle of things, when you’re surrounded by a bunch of smart people looking to do cool stuff.

Fadell says the seemingly obvious notion came to the fore during a round of the word game, Scramble.

“That’s what everyone was using it for,” he says. “There was almost nothing for people to use, day after day. And then you start scratching your head, thinking ‘how much does this cost? Who will buy? What’s it for.’ And that’s when you start to realize that you’ve spent three or four years of your life on this, and what could it be used for? We have this general capability. What could it be used for?”

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

The research would eventually give rise to an early generation of PDAs like Sony’s Magic Link and Philips’ Velo. “I was reading about writing a business plan and a presentation, and I thought ‘what’s the point?’” explains Fadell. “Why? I swear, it took four or five days to start thinking in these terms of why, why, why? Because that was my whole life, thinking what, what, what?”

After a stint at Philips, Fadell once again found himself ahead of the adoption curve – albeit significantly less this time. Attempts to bring the Fuse music player to market were hampered, in part, by funding that had dried up as a result of the recent dot-com bubble burst. Two years later, however, he found himself realizing those dreams on a much bigger stage at Apple, with the development of the first iPod.

Three years later, the company began working in earnest on a smartphone. After the Motorola ROKR E1 proved to be a huge failure, the company shifted its focus to internal design, borrowing much of the iPod’s learnings and designs.

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

“This is a prototype that a third-party manufacturer sent me, saying, ‘We can do it. Check out this cool thing we did’ and ‘I think you should choose us because we can help you with this iPod Phone concept,’” Fadell says of the photo above. “The top and bottom have a swivel, so you can have the numeric keypad or the click wheel or the camera. It was really cool that people were thinking about it. It wasn’t too bad! It doesn’t work for many reasons, but it’s not a bad thought.”

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

Initial work on the iPhone started in a similar place.

“We made the iPod Plus Phone,” says Fadell. “You took the headset, which had a microphone and an ear thing. You can use the Click Wheel to select numbers and names, or you can dial with it, like a rotary phone, which was the ultimate death. You cannot enter anything, because there is no textual input. But it was an iPod Classic with a phone. Go back from the third-party prototype and we were there too.”

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

Fadell says it was Steve Jobs who pushed the team to marry the iPod’s success with the secret phone project. After all, the company had developed something iconic and intuitive with the iPod’s click wheel, so why would it do something as foolhardy as cannibalizing the input device with a touchscreen?

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

“[Jobs] I had very clear views on things – until they were no longer clear,” he says. “Or it was very clear that they wouldn’t work. He put a lot of pressure on us to make the iPod Plus Phone work. We’ve been working weeks and weeks to figure out how to enter with the click wheel. We didn’t make it, and after the whole team was convinced we couldn’t make it, he said, ‘keep trying!’ At some point, we all said, ‘No, it won’t work’”.

The “iPod Plus Phone” was one of three concepts that resulted in the first iPhone.

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

“There was the full-screen iPod, because we had video at the time,” he explains. “We had the screen plus the wheel, so let’s make the virtual wheel on the screen and have a single-touch screen. The third thing, from a hardware point of view, was a Mac with a touchscreen, which was multi-touch. This was being worked on elsewhere in the company. A company called FingerWorks was bought by Apple. A guy named Steve Hotelling came up with the idea for a multi-touch screen, but it was the size of a ping pong table. He had a projector in the middle of him, and all that stuff. We had to put it all together and combine the iPod Plus Phone’s cell phone functionality and the screen feature and the virtual interface together.”

Fadell’s Jobs stories paint a familiar vision of a visionary whose perfectionism can often result in long hours in Cupertino. We made a decision early on that we wouldn’t have glass [the iPhone],” he says. “And after it was revealed to the world, Steve said, ‘we have to put glass in it.’ You have all the mechanical and rigidity problems that you need to design for. glass, it’s a very different experience. In the span of two months, we had to switch from plastic to glass and re-engineer everything, including the antennas to get it right.”

Image credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

In 2008, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Fadell was leaving the company. “People familiar with the matter said Fadell planned to take time off after leaving the company, although he may still retain a role at Apple as a consultant,” the paper wrote. Apple, unsurprisingly, declined to comment on “rumors and speculation.”

Fadell would once again launch his own company. This time, however, he fared much better. Founded in 2010 with fellow Apple expat Matt Rogers, Nest would be acquired by Google four years later, serving as the foundation of the company’s smart home offerings. It was a huge leap from the world of music players and telephones to thermostats and smoke alarms.

You go from more or less entertainment to this thing that is highly functional and has zero design around it,” says Fadell of the Nest Thermostat. “You need it to control the temperature – but why you really need it is to control the money you spend. That’s when we had to change the narrative, which is why the narrative was so critical at Nest. One was to make it look cool to attract people. And two, why do you need to pay five to ten times more for it? It’s technology at the service of something really important. But nobody cared.”

When not promoting a book or cleaning out his garage, Fadell serves as the director of Future Shape, helping startups bring their visions to life.

“Many companies that come to me with hardware, I ask why they need it,” he says. “I try to get rid of the hardware if I can because it’s a lot of friction. I see so many people getting distracted because it’s a cool thing. What we do is ensure that the hardware is absolutely necessary – that it is at the service of the planet, societies or health. We care about funding things that will help fix these things.”

“Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making” is now available from HarperCollins Publishers.

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