Whatever happened to: the Internet-connected fridge? at PC Authority brought back memories of stories I wrote in 2000.
It was just after the dotcom bubble burst, but at a time when there was still interest in the internet and the way it was reaching in to all aspects of life. Despite huge investments and plenty of hype, internet-connected fridges never took off.
They hardly sold at all. Before we look at why the product category failed, here’s the colourful intro I wrote for a The Australian Financial Review story in June 2000:
Disney’s cartoon movie The Beauty and the Beast featured a castle full of intelligent animated appliances that talked to each other. The film was made as recently as 1991, yet even at that time, the idea of loquacious brooms, smart candlesticks, chatty clocks and even intelligent teapots seemed like pure fantasy.
It was eerily prophetic. Today people in laboratories, software development corporations and marketing departments are working on projects that will put an electronic brain in just about every household appliance you can imagine and provide the hardware allowing devices to talk to each other. By the time Disney’s film celebrates its tenth birthday, the first fruit of their labours will be on sale.
Hopefully the modern smart household devices won’t spend their time in petty cartoonish bickering. For the most part they’ll be swapping information and communication commands from one device to another to co-ordinate their actions. Most likely the signals shuttling between a real world clock and a smart electric kettle will travel by wireless. Though other technologies such as infrared are also under investigation.
The failure was obvious even as the appliance companies were still steaming ahead with the products. I interviewed someone selling a fridge that could detect when it was running out of milk and automatically order another litre via an online supermarket.
None of this was cheap. The fridge cost more than A$20,000.
To order a single litre of milk – which might cost a dollar in a supermarket – would cost $35 by the time the online grocer added fees and delivery charges. Colour me Luddite if you like, but I suspect few people would fork out that kind of money when they could just stop off on the way home and pick up a carton.
In a story titled Hell’s Kitchen, I wrote:
In January, visitors to the International Building Show in Dallas Texas got a glimpse of the kitchen of the future. General Electric showed an Internet-connected fridge that reads food packet bar codes and automatically re-orders items when stocks run low.
Rival fridge-maker Whirlpool’s device had a detachable wireless pad that could download recipes.
At roughly the same time, Sunbeam was showing an alarm clock that turns off an electric blanket while switching on the coffee machine. It also has bathroom scales that send your weight details to the gym.
Elsewhere companies have been promoting net-enabled microwave ovens that allow busy office workers to send cooking commands via the web and have dinner cooked by the time they return home.
All heady stuff. But mainly nonsense as I went on to point out. My main story didn’t use this language, it said appliance makers who were suffering from low margins on dull products looked at high-tech companies and their profits and decided to get in on the act.
…companies in the low-margin, mature, distinctly unsexy appliance business regard the Internet as a kind of commercial Viagra that will rejuvenate their profit margins and enable them to satisfy every woman’s needs for ages to come.
Maybe. But there are major obstacles to overcome, not least of which is consumer apathy. To date sales of high-tech kitchen devices have not exactly set the market alight.
The kind of gung-ho marketing commandos who flog these products aren’t the sort to let customer indifference stop them, but there are other problems.
Above all there’s a lack of standards. Kitchen appliance makers and computer companies have formed into a number of camps around various communications protocols and, guess what? Devices made by rival companies can’t talk to each other.
In other words, it was obvious these products weren’t going to fly.