Jeannine Parker on the implications of the web-enabled refrigerator

All this convergence and smart appliance talk just may be starting to go somewhere. They just announced it, they've finally gone and put the Web on the fridge. Yes, folks, for a small fortune you too can own a Frigidaire with a PC built right in, and the whole thing's connected to the - gasp! - Internet.

It sounds like yet another ridiculous solution in search of a problem we don't have, but it's not. In fact, it's devilishly clever. And practical. And dangerous.

With all the banter about wired homes and networked appliances (remind me why my TV would want to talk to my toaster, again?), this refrigerator one actually does make sense on a number of levels. So let's riff awhile on the implications of the WebFridge.

Just about every modern household has a fridge; matter of fact there are more refrigerators in homes than there are bathtubs (scary thought, that, but we won't go there). Every member of the household goes to the fridge every day, many times per day. (Hear those marketeers going "waHOO!" in the background?) Refrigerator doors start their lives as simple blank canvases, but before long phone messages, chores, artwork, calendars, magnetic poetry, coupons, shopping lists, correspondence and communications of all kinds cover them completely. The fridge is truly the "desktop" of the family.

That desktop, if it were wired, could offer ways to handle family "business processes" like nobody's business. Carpool coordination, homework, household duties, sports and band practice, the list goes on and on. Right now most of this management takes place over the kitchen table and on the kitchen phone, with the results posted on the fridge. So the kitchen is in fact a highly logical place for software and technology. However, the problem with putting a PC in your kitchen -- as opposed to the family room or living room -- has been pretty basic: how? Who has enough counter real estate for a tower and a decently-sized monitor? Or, for that matter, even for a cute little Grape iMac? Oh, yeah, we'll just squeeze it in between the microwave, coffeemaker, can opener, food processor and toaster. Uh huh. And, um, "Hello, tech support? Does spilling oatmeal in it void the warranty? It was an accident, really, my kid just... " Consumer appliances, especially when they're in the kitchen, need to be built like amphibious tanks. So hiding the machinery inside the fridge, with an industrial-strength touchscreen on the outside, is a fine idea. (And come to think of it, built-in cooling for a hot speedy processor might not be all bad, either.)

The British firm that's worked with Frigidaire on their "Screen Fridge," ICL, has thought up a lot of cool stuff for it. They've built in a TV tuner, so that while you're cooking you can watch a show. OK, that's nifty multi-purposing, maybe superfluous. Since you've got a high-res screen, why not? More importantly, though, they've put in bar-code scanning, which will allow you to scan the food containers as you finish them, and will prep a grocery list.

That little bar-coding feature is the real key to the kingdom. Imagine, you just scan the ice cream carton before you toss it, and bing! It's on the list. Same for the rest of the things you eat. Of course you can also input the new and different comestibles you want from week to week, specials are naturally interactive with your list. Then let's say you're signed up for Streamline's grocery delivery service, they'll just download your latest list - approved by Mom or Dad first, of course - before they deliver your next set of groceries. Or you can print it out & take it with you to the store.

For retailers and advertisers, this capability opens up entire worlds. Large grocery chains already track consumer food purchases through check and club cards. This creates efficiencies in inventory management, couponing and more. Tracking consumption right in the home will add levels of precision previously unimaginable. Advertising and push technologies could gain a whole new audience and ROI. There's so much potential value here that subsidizing hardware & upgrades for these appliances might even make sense.

But here's where we get to the dangerous part. Yes, it would be superbly convenient to gain this kind of precision in food commerce, on both sides of the transaction. But let's be real. Of everything that we spend our hard-earned cash on, food is the single largest expenditure. The kitchen is the heart of the household, the fridge is at the heart of the kitchen, and that's where that lion's share of our cash goes. The competition for attention in this space will be incredibly fierce -- that is, if we let the advertisers and retailers in at all.

And therein lies the rub. Today your fridge is a target for some pretty low-end advertising, what gets through is mostly coupons and branded magnets for your local pizza parlor. With a powerful networked appliance in the kitchen, demographers and psychographers will go bananas with the new data. As it is they're extremely savvy, and gaining more refined controls every day. Once you add networked databases into the mix, things get rather up close & personal. They already know what flavors of ice cream sell well in certain zip codes. I don't know that I'd be too comfy with them knowing when I get a craving for a late-night snack, and I know I don't want them to push me an ad for Cherry Vanilla Haagen Dazs at that very moment.

Of course it's a double-edged sword, and how the pros outweigh the cons is what will determine whether or not we'll buy WebFridges for our millenial homes. Software, barcoding and the network could make your fridge pretty smart. If my fridge could scan its own contents and give me options for what to make for dinner tonight from the feast of condiments and leftovers inside, and show me a recipe, it just might all be worth it.

copyright March, 1999, Jeannine Parker. All rights, etc.
Please send JP your thoughts on this, or anything reasonably relevant that's on your mind.

Oh, and in case you're curious, the hyperbolic press release that inspired this piece: http://www.icl.com/news/press/feb99/10feb99b.htm

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