"Without the computing platform of Apple ... the world wouldn't be where it is" ... Tony Fadell. Photo: Bloomberg
WHAT do you do after inventing the iPod? Steve Jobs and Apple may have got all the credit for building the product that led to the all-conquering iPhone and iPad, but it was Tony Fadell who touted his plan for an MP3 player around various companies, and approached Apple in 2001.
So Fadell's next challenge is … home thermostats. Could anything be less sexy? But Nest, Fadell's thermostat for the smartphone generation, learns your habits and adjusts your energy use accordingly. A man who by his own admission ''doesn't need to work again'' has built a team of Silicon Valley millionaires and is working on a market sector he says is ''bigger than refrigerators, bigger than video games''.
But isn't everyone more interested in Apple, not least because no former executive ever talks about the secretive, multibillion-dollar market leader? The company's mythology implies it built Fadell's iPod to build the iPhone, and foresaw a future of apps and touchscreens. ''That's bullshit,'' Fadell says. ''It's revisionist history. And Apple can do it because they never say anything, right?''
But Fadell is happy to talk. He says he was leading a tiny experiment at Apple. ''When I showed the iPod to Steve [Jobs] and he said, 'It's a go', he meant to the next milestone. He didn't mean we were going to even ship it. We wanted to do everything at the cutting edge to the very best of our ability, but we didn't have this grand idea.''
Fadell says even his iPod team was largely taken up with ''the day job'' of building the Macintosh. Apple, after all, was a company with $500 million of debt. ''It couldn't have been more different from the Apple of today.''
The former iPod boss - he left in 2008 - poses the question: ''Is Apple a visionary company today?'' and answers: ''Absolutely. Does it build amazing products? Absolutely.'' But at the start, ''there was no vision of taking everything to a world of iPhones and iPads''.
And what about the genius of Jobs? It's not in Fadell's interest to agree to the hagiography that says Jobs changed every detail of every product, because that would imply his own Nest thermostat might not be perfect. But he makes a good case for his own credentials. ''We built the iPod in weeks. There wasn't time for endless refinements.'' According to Fadell, there was an iPod visionary. He just doesn't say it was Steve Jobs.
He never denies, however, that the iPod was a product of a unique culture, and concedes he owes a huge debt to Jobs and Apple. ''I'd absolutely heard all the Steve stories,'' he says. ''The guys I worked with in those businesses were key to making the products we shipped later.''
Fadell is also happy to explain Apple's unique, hands-off approach to PR. It has built a brand that detractors decry as style over substance, yet it inspires unprecedented loyalty among its fans. ''If you're a company focused on competitors,'' he says, ''you'll be a follower. And you'll talk to the media about all sorts of stuff. But if you're a company focused on the consumer, you'll talk about the products that you've got and how to get the most out of them.''
Plus, he adds, when you're as big as Apple, you can't realistically talk to everyone, anyway.
Fadell is clear that Apple made the iDevices what they are. ''Without the computing platform of Apple, it could all have been swallowed up by a Sony and the world wouldn't be where it is,'' he says.
Growth has left Apple ''less nimble'', but visionary nonetheless. ''Usually the biggest companies are not the most dynamic.''
For him, however, the wealth Apple brought him has been tempered by what he calls ''an idea burning in my brain'', and the desire to work in order to ''be a role model to my kids''. It would, he says, have been hard to tell his children that work was a good thing to do if he didn't do it himself.
Fadell hit on the Nest idea by looking around his home for the things that ''didn't make sense for the smartphone generation''.
''I started designing the greenest, the most connected home, before the iPhone and the iPad,'' he says. ''I knew it was coming.''
Nest relays information on heating or cooling for each zone in a house, provides detailed data on energy use and predicts users' behaviour. Fadell talks about 20 per cent market share worldwide.
''Investors were calling me saying, 'We want to give you money,''' he says, adding that ''that's not a common problem''.
If Jobs convinced every teenager in the Western world they needed an iPod, Fadell is going after an even bigger, wealthier market: the people who pay the heating bills. And those people are the iPod generation.