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Google Discontinues ‘Works With Nest’ Program, Tightens Smart Home Privacy Rules

As Google is further integrating the Nest brand, it is also introducing some significant changes to the way Nest products will work. The most notable one: The company will discontinue its Works With Nest program this summer, which has the potential to break a number of existing smart home integrations. Google is justifying this step with a new focus on privacy, which includes reducing data sharing to a much smaller number of pre-approved partners.

Google announced that it is phasing out “Works With Nest” in conjunction with its Google I/O developer conference. The company also used the event to announce a new Nest-branded product, the Nest Hub Max, a 10-inch smart display with integrated camera.

“Nest is a long-established brand,” said Google vice president Rishi Chandra in a recent conversation with Variety about the reasons the company chose to re-brand its smart home hardware. “We want Google Nest to represent the helpful home.”

Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014. Best known for its smart thermostat at the time, Google let Nest operate as an independent entity, a structure that was reinforced when Google formalized its corporate structure under the Alphabet umbrella back in 2015. However, Nest’s standalone brand and product group struggled to live up to expectations, ultimately leading to the departure of founder Tony Fadell. A year ago, Nest officially was brought back under Google’s hardware division.

As part of the now-announced brand integration, Google also renamed its 7-inch Home Hub smart display, which will be branded Nest Hub going forward. Existing products like the Google Home smart speaker and the Google Home Mini won’t be renamed, but Google vice president Rishi Chandra told Variety that the company will launch all successor products under the Nest brand. “It will take some time,” Chandra said about the brand integration.

But Google doesn’t want to just use the rebranding as a marketing exercise. Chandra argued that existing smart home programs had been much too iterative, and not responsive enough to the requirements of communal device usage.

This especially includes privacy, an area where Google aims to differentiate itself from the competition. Consumers have to have clear expectations of the way devices capture and share data, he argued, no matter whether they’re the ones who install a device in a home, whether they’re a family member, or even a visitor. Google tried to encapsulate the gist of its new approach to privacy in a set of commitments published Tuesday, which include the promise to explain how all of the sensors in any of its devices work.

To adhere to this newly-strengthened commitment to privacy, Google also changed some of the ways its own products work. One example: Nest’s existing home security cameras have a green light that turns on when video is captured. Up until now, Nest owners could disable this light when they wanted to covertly surveil their home. Following its new guidelines, Google will disable that capability.

But the biggest change is the discontinuation of “Works with Nest,” a program that allowed device makers and app developers to build things that would interact with Nest products. Google is replacing it with a more restrictive “Works with Google Assistant” program later this summer, and Chandra said that it would give a small numbers of thoroughly vetted partners access to additional data if customers explicitly allowed such data sharing.

One impact of these changes, according to Chandra: “It will break IFTTT.” IFTTT, short for “if this then that,” is a web-based service that allows users to build a wide variety of custom integrations for smart home products. It’s especially popular with early adopters, who use the platform to fine-tune specific tasks across multiple devices.

IFTTT can for instance be used to change the temperature on a user’s thermostat when they leave the office, or operate obscure smart home devices not officially supported by Google with voice commands from a Google smart speaker. Chandra said that the company planned to replace much of IFTTT’s functionality with its own Google Assistant routines.

Google’s integration of the Nest brand comes at a time of uncertainty for the consumer electronics industry as a whole. Not only are hardware makers under pressure because of the U.S.’s escalating trade conflict with China, high prices and a maturing market have also led to a slow-down in phone sales. Apple saw iPhone sales decline by 17% last quarter. Google got hit by a notable hardware revenue decline during the quarter as well, prompting some analysts to question whether the company should stop making devices altogether.

Chandra dismissed those concerns. “The commitment to hardware hasn’t changed at all,” he said. However, his remarks also suggested that Google’s approach to hardware may be evolving as it introduces new devices like the Nest Hub Max.

Case in point: Google launched Assistant-powered smart displays in partnership with companies like Lenovo, Sony and LG, only to later release the Home Hub as a Google-made device. With the Home Hub Max, the company is now starting to introduce new features that may not necessarily find their way to some of those third-party devices.

Face Match for instance is powered by on-device AI. And as such local AI processing increases, so does the reliance on specialized chipsets, which may not necessarily be available to other companies. Said Chandra: “We do believe (the market is) being more and more verticalized.”

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