When he was in his early 30s, Tony Fadell was made what today’s young tech entrepreneurs would consider a dream offer: a job at Apple, working alongside Steve Jobs.
Except in 2001, it wasn’t at all.
“You have to remember, Apple at that time had less than 1% market share in the US for laptops and PCs,” the inventor, now 44, tells me over coffee in a London hotel.
“They had $150m in the bank, and almost half a billion dollars in debt. I had to think long and hard about even accepting.”
The proposal was to lead a team working on a new product Jobs hoped would revive his company’s flagging fortunes.
For Fadell, who’d already spent his twenties in the excitable, unpredictable world of Silicon Valley trying to translate his ideas into commercial success with General Magic and Philips, it all sounded a too familiar. But this time, Jobs promised him, would be different.
“He told me very calmly: ‘I’m going to put all of our marketing money behind this. Whatever you need, just ask.’ I agreed and then he just left us to it for five months.”
The product that emerged on 23 October 2001 was the first iPod, a portable music player with a wheel that played MP3s. After a slow start, sales began to pick up.
“When we started to see those silhouette ads, that’s when we knew this was going to be a big, big deal,” Fadell remembers.
By its third year, the iPod was selling in the hundreds of millions worldwide. It would become arguably the most iconic product of its era, and help transform Apple from Microsoft’s eccentric little rival to the coolest brand of the 21st century.
Apple’s genius from the iPod onwards has been to take pieces of technology that were mere necessities in our lives – desktop computers, phones, TVs – and transform them into things we love to interact with and love to be seen with. More than anything, the company’s success has marked the point in human history when our anxieties towards digital technology melted away to a warm embrace.
Fadell, one of the original architects of that success, is now turning his focus to household products even older and less loved than the first computers or mobile phones.
His own company Nest Labs – set up a few years after leaving Apple to focus on his young family in 2008 – have so far reinvented smoke alarms and thermostats, and are rumoured to have 100s of patents for products waiting to transform the average home.
And if the shift from inventing entertainment products to inventing household safety devices sounds unsexy, Fadell is confident of changing your mind.
“I was designing my own house in the years after Apple, and I began thinking about all these things you have to have around the home that haven’t changed since I was a kid, and how many problems there were with them.”
Take for example, he says, the smoke detector, an item required to be in every building by law.
“They are ugly as hell. You burn your toast or they run low on battery, and they start annoying you. You take a shower and the steam sets them off. It becomes a black comedy. 72% of fire-related deaths are caused because people rip them off the walls. It’s lunacy!”
Nest Labs fire alarms, which are already available in the UK in John Lewis and Apple, are he says both ‘cool and safe’.
“If it detects smoke or carbon monoxide, it tells you politely: ‘please be aware there’s smoke in the kitchen’. 99% of the time you’re on top of it, so all you need to do is wave your hand and the device will leave you to it.”
The voice, picked after sitting in darkened rooms listening to hundreds of actresses, was chosen to sound “firm, but motherly, like a nanny”, because reports suggest sleeping children are more likely to be respond to a voice than a siren.
In a neat extra feature, if you’re walking around in the middle of the night the detector senses your movement and emits a low level light to guide your path, meaning no fumbling for light switches or disturbing others. It’s a classic piece of Apple thinking that is simple, but somehow feels both clever and exciting.
With units shifting well around the world, Fadell’s next focus is the thermostat, which launches in the UK next year.
“66% of your energy bill in the UK goes on heating,” he says, passionate but never overbearing.
“People run around saying: ‘honey, turn off the lights you’re wasting money!’ Environmentalists install solar lighting because it’s fashionable. But most people ignore the device most responsible for their energy use. It’s ludicrous.”
In America, he says, only 11% of thermostats are ever programmed to save energy.
I’m handed a demo of Nest Labs solution. It’s classic Apple: white, smooth and pleasant to touch. And, of course, innovative.
“We came up with a thing called autoschedule. All you do is turn it up one degree in the morning and another couple when you get in at night. After a few days, it learns your pattern and does it for you.
“It also has sensors built in so it knows if you’re not at home, not to bother heating the place.”
It is also, unsurprisingly, smartphone connected, meaning you can use your mobile to manually warm up your living room on your way home, or check your heating history and see how much you’re saving each month.
Showing similar signs of early success as the smoke alarm, keep an eye out for their new London tube advertising campaign.
“We’re starting a real conversation,” he says.
Fadell and the team knew the iPod had changed their long-running rivalry with Microsoft when Bill Gates’s children said their father wouldn’t let them own an iPod.
“That’s when we thought: ‘we’ve got them’. It changed the mood of the company tremendously. We were no longer the underdogs,” he says.
And what about Steve Jobs, the high priest of Apple, the man who turned him from a promising young designer to one of the biggest names in Silicon Valley? What was he like in those heady days of his company’s first big hit?
“You know, Steve would smile but he never got jubilant. For him that would have meant being complacent.
“In technology, someone is always going to try and steal your lunch. I think he celebrated for a couple of nanoseconds, then got back to work.”
That work, of course, gave the world the iPhone and the iPad.
Who knows what a similar attitude in one of his protégés will mean for our households in the years to come.