(sorry I couldn't resist that one). Cuckoos, you may know, sometimes lay their eggs in other birds' nests
. Now industrial giant Honeywell is accusing 2011 start-up darling Nest Labs
of having laid a virtual cuckoo's egg by producing a product that violates at least half a dozen Honeywell patents and may infringe on other companies' designs as well.
Nest Labs got a lot of publicity for its release last October of a "learning" thermostat - a digital device that uses a number of techniques to regulate your home's heating/cooling use in more intelligent ways, saving you on energy costs. Nest Labs has Tony Fadell, the former chief architect at Apple, as one of its founders, which helped it in the publicity arena, and its designs are said to embody the famous Apple design aesthetic.
Unfortunately, according to a pair of stories on Gigaom, the device may embody a lot more than just an aesthetic. In yesterday's first story, Katie Fehrenbacher detailed the outlines of the case that Honeywell wants to make against Nest and retailer Best Buy, listing seven areas where Honeywell is claiming to a Minnesota court that Nest has infringed.
Then in an update last night, Fehrenbacher posted the juicy details, including naming the six specific patents that Honeywell is using to back up its charges of infringement. Interestingly, Honeywell has also included a third party's (Kohler) product design image, claiming the two are "strikingly similar". Does this portend more suits against Nest, possibly over design patents? Is that "Apple look" perhaps not so unusual or distinctive as last year's gushing commentaries led us to believe?
That, I suspect, is something we'll see settled in court. The market for smart thermostats right now is small, but growing, and Nest has some very big investor names behind it. I don't think they're going to want to dump their investment and like a lot of these infringement suits I think they're going to find it wiser to deal than fight. Whether Honeywell wants to license its patents or use them to keep the hot start-up out of the business is still unknown.