Toronto-based Ecobee wants to be the Apple of smart thermostats

Taking on a giant

Ecobee

“When we think about who we compete with, we compete with Apple,” said Stuart Lombard, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Ecobee.”It’s not because Apple makes thermostats — but when a customer puts a product in their home, they’re not comparing to Honeywell. They’re comparing it to the iPhone.”

Founded back in 2007 by Lombard because of his own frustrations with the smart thermostat market at the time, Ecobee has since gone on to release a variety of thermostats over the years, with the Ecobee3 and more recently, the Ecobee4, being the company’s most well-known devices.

ecobee front office

“When we think about making a product that’s as good as an iPhone, that’s incredibly hard just to start with,” said Lombard, when speaking about the development of the Ecobee4, which only recently made its way to Canada alongside the official Canadian release of Amazon’s Alexa voice-activated assistant.

Lombard says that the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant-powered Ecobee4, the company’s latest and highest-end smart thermostat, was a significant undertaking for the company from a technical perspective, especially as one of the first devices to feature built-in Alexa voice integration.

“When we think about who we compete with, we compete with Apple”

“Voice is nuanced and is part art and part science. We tested 20,000 utterances in different noise environments,” said Lombard, mentioning that the company’s new Toronto headquarters features an audio lab that allowed its engineers to test the performance of the Ecobee4’s far-field mics in a variety of audio conditions.

The company’s office also includes several 3D printers, which lets Ecobee’s engineers rapidly iterate on design concepts.

Anyone who has tested early attempts at voice recognition, let alone far-field voice — for example, Ford’s in-car Sync infotainment platform, or even Microsoft’s ill-fated Xbox One accessory, the Kinect 2.0 — knows how frustrating voice commands can be when a device doesn’t hear them consistently and under all circumstances.

Ecobee office

While adding various microphones and far-field voice control to a smart thermostat may seem like a simple process, especially when the digital assistant that powers the device already exists, Lombard says that there was significantly more to the Ecobee4’s development process than simply sticking an Amazon Echo Dot to the wall.

For a device to analyze a user’s voice from a vertical position, rather than horizontally like with the Echo Dot’s mic array, an entirely different set of tests and adjustments are required, especially when the Ecobee4 also needs to act as what Lombard describes as the “perfect thermostat.”

Of course, like most smart home devices, Ecobee doesn’t exist in a non-competitive vacuum, with Google’s Nest being the company’s main opponent in the smart home thermostat arena.

Going up against Google, a massive tech giant with seemingly infinite funds, is no easy task, especially for a Canadian company that has opted to stay in the country as it continues to scale up its operations, rather than make the decision to move Ecobee’s headquarters to California.

“First of all, it’s home, so that’s always a bonus. But I think there’s a lot of great talent in Toronto, and I think the Toronto tech ecosystem has improved significantly over the last 10 years. So when you look at the talent — and not just at Ecobee — but generally in the Toronto market, it’s significantly better,” said Lombard.

“There are natural benefits like costs being lower, as well as access to government programs like scientific research and development credits, which have been a big help for us,” continued Ecobee’s founder, listing the more obvious reasons for continuing to build the company in Canada.

Ecobee drawable walls

Lombard says that one of the ways Ecobee separates itself from Nest is that the company recognizes customers fall into a variety of different ecosystems when it comes to the current disparate nature of smart home devices, emphasizing that customers want choice.

“Nest [Google] is really trying to build this ‘Works with Nest’ platform and get people into their ecosystem. Our strategy is really, how do we become the dominant player in the ecosystems customers are already part of. How do we become the dominant player in the Amazon ecosystem… the Apple ecosystem, the same with Samsung,” said Lombard.

Given Ecobee directly competes with Nest devices, it’s strange for the company to also support Google Assistant, along with Amazon’s Alexa. Lombard says that this decision is key to ensuring Ecobee’s customer have what he calls “adequate choice.”

Ecobee engineering space

“It’s obviously an important ecosystem for our customers so we need to be there as well,” said Lombard when asked why the Ecobee supports one of its competitor’s voice-activated assistants.

Beyond this differentiating factor, Stuart emphasizes that the Ecobee’s various room sensors, which allow the device to detect temperature in the home from multiple locations, is also a key differentiator for the company in the competitive smart home thermostat market.

“So when you look at the talent — and not just at Ecobee — but generally in the Toronto market, it’s significantly better”

In late 2017, Ecobee opened a new headquarters in Toronto, Ontario, in the city’s Queens Quay West harbourfront area. The 37,000-square foot facility houses 200 employees, including the company’s hardware and software engineers, architects, data scientists and designers. According to Lombard, the company has hired over 100 new employees over the course of 2017.

Ecobee office meeting room sign

Each of the office’s meeting rooms are named after one of Canada’s iconic national parks, with the entire workplace also being rife with greenery and grass carpeting.

Perhaps most importantly, all of the office’s walls can be sketched on — though of course, etchings aren’t permanent and can be wiped away like a white board.

Looking to the future, Lombard says that Ecobee is still preparing to release a smart light switch that features far-field voice recognition and Wi-Fi connectivity, but that is still wired like a standard light switch. Ecobee’s Switch+ is set to be released at some point in the second quarter of 2018.

Ecobee Office library

“When you think about your smartphone, before you had a smartphone, you had a phone and it was a phone with a crappy camera. You might have had an iPod music player; you might have had a GPS in your car; you probably carried a digital camera; and you might have had a video camera,” said Lombard.

“Now, that’s all in one device. I think you’re going to see that consolidation happen in the smart home too.”

Comments

  • JD

    Apple of Smart Thermostats? That’s what Nest and Faddell was aiming for. They can’t both be Apple.
    Granted, under Google, Nest is now the Windows ME of Smart Thermostats.

    • Marshall Davidson

      Nest the windows? Are you serious.

    • EBIGN

      Nest kinda went downhill when Google bought them. They aren’t available in the Apple store anymore and restricted support to just Google than having support to Alexa.

    • Marshall Davidson

      That’s irrelevant. The ability to control via Alexa isn’t that big a deal. I’m more interested in whether the thermostat is effective at its job versus voice control. The hardware is sound and given Android dominance of the market today, hardly relevant.

    • It’s Me

      I like the look of the Ecobee but really like the look of the Nest more.

      I don’t like that Fadell promised he wouldn’t allow google to invasively use their user info when they were selling, but quickly walked back that promise afterwards.

    • Marshall Davidson

      How so? What user info? Fact is anyone using Google is going to have to accept that tradeoff that their info will be used as its the very basis of the company’s business strategy and dare I say profits.

    • It’s Me

      Well, you’re right of course, everyone using google will have to accept that trade off. The distasteful part was Nest promised their users they wouldn’t have to make that trade off when google bought them, and them backtracked on that promise.

    • Marshall Davidson

      Well if you’re using Google products then its really neither here nor there what Nest does. I could care less whether they share info about my heating or cooling habits or my location. I compromised on that long ago when I started using an Android tablet, smartphone, Google Home, Google Assistant, Nvidia Shield and so on.

    • It’s Me

      True enough.

    • JD

      Looks great works like crap.
      Yep the Windows ME of smart thermostats.
      I’m replacing mine with the Ecobee 4 when it launches in Canada.

  • Marshall Davidson

    Ecobee doesn’t hold a candle to the Nest Thermostats in my opinion. From a UI perspective as well as design it’s quite unnattractive

    • Andrew

      I have had both (currently use an Ecobee3) and I find the UI to be easier to use on the Ecobee; especially for the programming home, away, and sleep timings and settings. Additionally having the extra sensors with the Ecobee is effective at balancing house temperatures. As for attractiveness I agree, the Nest does look better.

    • Marshall Davidson

      Don’t agree with the first part of your comment but the latter part I do.
      Ecobee is crap and the size of that thing on the wall is ridiculous.

    • johny

      i love my echobee. git it from Ontario government 🙂 sold my nest and got extra sensors. wish sensors were half the price!

    • thereasoner

      Our Best has been great. Eco mode was automatically generated when we went away over the holidays and the app came in handy to check up on things and adjust the heat a couple of hours before we came home.

    • Brad Fortin

      Do you use the Early-On feature?

    • Croc Ography

      Completely disagree, I personally got rid of my 2 Nest thermostats and replaced them with 2 Ecobee ones. The interface is far less frustrating on the Ecobee than the nest and the controls are more obvious. Programming the away mode is especially less time consuming on the Ecobee… but he extra sensors are what clinched the deal for me. I will certainly not be going back(wards) to the Nest.

    • Marshall Davidson

      That’s ludicrous. The setup for the Nest is far easier than Ecobee and any review will point this out as an advantage. Programming an away mode is as simple as setting minimum and maximum temps and that’s it. If you want to set actual temps and times, which kinda seems pointless if you’re not home, then that’s not difficult either.
      That said the strength of the Ecobee is that its better suited to an actual house vs. a condo. The option of extra sensors is quite necessary in the former vs. the latter and I’d probably think of getting one if I owned a big enough property.
      Ecobee needs to smarten up with their design because their thermostats are ridiculously large and ugly.

    • Croc Ography

      I don’t think you know what you are talking about. I have used both, the NEST for over a year and a similar time for the Ecobees. Programming the Ecobee away times is just as simple. Maybe you should first own one to comment. (I know now you are going to tell me you do or have.)

      For me at least that touch screen on the Ecobee makes programming small details much, much easier than the Nest. Plus you can get to the functions quicker… instead of click turn, click, turn… well you get the idea since you have a nest.

      Also though completely agree on the house thing. I guess if I lived in a condo I may be just as happy with a nest, but in this case I wouldn’t even bother to buy one. Assuredly owning a home almost mandates an Ecobee.

      As for the design I like both, but I think the Nest is form over function.

      In the end I am happy you are happy with you Nest, but starting your thread saying “Ecobee doesn’t hold a candle to the Nest Thermostats” is a little to comprehensive a statement for me not to respond to something so ridiculous.

  • John Lofwire

    So they want to include planned obsolessence and reduction of performance after a few years?

    I would do anything to not be compared to apple at the moment lol.

    • Rev0lver

      Still trying to make sense Stuttering John?

    • It’s Me

      It’s always fascinating when the cashiers and factory workers dazzle us with their insights on technology. Personally, I’m waiting for the janitor to contribute.

    • CanadaJoe

      he is… see below.

    • It’s Me

      You wouldn’t, but that might explain why you are where you are in your life at your age. Not sure if you’re the model Apple would want to follow either l, so I suppose it’s mutual.

      Most people get out of retail when they finish school, but not you John.

      You and the factory worker make me smile.

    • KiwiBri

      Haha.. I have that user blocked so I don’t need to see his comments. I can only guess what they are by the responses from what you and others are saying.. Heheh. Looks like nothing has changed with that fellow

    • It’s Me

      John is a special type of guy. Obsessively trolls any story that even mentions Apple and even ones that don’t if he can find a way to make it about Apple. But throws a tantrum if anyone disagrees with him (which any intelligent person will) and calls them Apple trolls.

      He’s clearly not very bright and I honestly think he suffers from a mental handicap.

  • Well if they could make a multi-speed fan thermostat (which is in almost every new condo in Canada (especially Toronto) ), then I might consider it.
    Pretty ironic that a Torontonian company doesn’t even look at what is being built in Toronto, eh?

    • KiwiBri

      And that’s why I couldn’t use one for my furnace a few years ago. That, and also I couldn’t see a demo of the product. I even called their office requesting to.

  • scotttech1

    “Toronto-based Ecobee wants to be the Apple of smart thermostats” so rather than what I was hoping, that they would be a cheaper alternative to NEST, I can look forward to never being able to afford one without taking out a loan?

  • edimistra

    I have an Ecobee and I am not 100% satisfied. First of all it supports only 1 user, Geofencing is not smart at all, there is no native feature to make the last person leaving out home to change thermostat settings. I noticed some bugs as well, Home/Away sensors are not always accurate and schedules don’t override settings when Home/Away is changed manually. If they want to be the “Apple” of thermostats, they should make them really smart. So far I feel I only have a Wi-Fi enabled thermostat, non a smart one.

  • Cortizone

    The Apple of thermostats to me would be horribly overpriced with technology generations behind others and falling further and further behind. Seems an odd goalpost to want to aim for.

    I remember old guys when I started working used to talk about the Cadillac of products and all us young people used to interpret this as overpriced and poor quality.

    I wish these guys well, but based on this I’m a bit concerned about their leadership skills.