Smart appliances and the innovation cycle

Lynne Kiesling

Appliance and consumer electronics manufacturers are starting to incorporate digital technology with energy-related applications into their products … but as with most new technologies, the first commercial stage of the innovation cycle takes the form of “because we can” product differentiation rather than use-specific innovation. Take the example that Technology Review highlighted this week: Samsung’s new refrigerator with an Android LCD display panel on the door. This high-end, gorgeous, stainless-steel refrigerator has an Android touch screen, which I think is pretty neat even if it does not read from the scripture of “the Internet of Things” that Christopher Mims wants it to — if I store my recipes in Evernote or in an Epicurious app, I can pull up a recipe on the door as I’m cooking, or make a shopping list as I’m looking in the fridge to see what I need. Mims’ tone is almost condescending when he observes that

A really smart fridge, part of the Internet of Things, would know when you put that lettuce in the crisper, so it could alert you when it was about to become inedible. It would tweet its current temperature so you know when your kid failed to close the door all the way. A really smart fridge probably doesn’t even have a display — far better to control it from any other internet-connected device.

The cynical view of Samsung’s move to embed a tiny tablet in its fridge is that these devices have become so cheap that sticking one in a fridge hardly makes any difference to their margins. It’s just one of those features — like a pop-up spoiler on the back of a luxury sports car — that makes a buyer feel like they got their splurge’s worth. If that’s the case, we can all look forward to Android-powered microwave ovens and clothes washers.

No. First of all, while I agree that automated monitoring features like produce spoilage detection and door ajar detection are desirable and user-friendly, Mims’ hyperbole about “Oh noes! We’re doomed to useless technology kitchen candy because of this!” shows a strong misunderstanding of the economics of consumer product innovation life cycles. The “version 1.0 mass-market user friendly right out of the gates model” is an outlier, a great exception to the typical evolution of technology; in fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a consumer technology product other than the iPod that comes close to that description. The “because we can” product differentiation puts the technology in the hands of early adopters, who are eager to kick the tires and are willing to spend their income to do so. These customers guinea-pig the technology for the rest of us, and provide companies like Samsung with feedback, which I’m sure will include comments like “it would be great if this technology enabled me to detect produce spoilage” and “this screen is pretty useless if all I can do is get to the Internet and not monitor my food”. Those experiences get incorporated into the evolution of the technology. Starting with the “because we can” technology is not necessarily going to lead to missed opportunities, as Mims argues, as long as companies like Samsung combine their engineering and business knowledge of what’s possible with the feedback they receive throughout the new technology adoption process.

Second, I think his definition of a “really smart fridge” is too limited. A really smart fridge would be transactive. A really smart fridge would enable its owner to program in price triggers to change settings on the chiller during expensive hours, saving the owner (an admittedly fairly small amount of) money and reducing energy use (good if the owner cares about conservation) and reducing peak demand on the distribution infrastructure (good for the wires company) — all without changing the quality of the refrigeration that the owner experiences, thanks to the beauty that is thermal mass. A transactive fridge would enable its owner to choose to cycle the chiller down if there isn’t much green power available, up to the point where the temperature change impairs the refrigeration, if the owner has a preference for green power. A transactive fridge is empowering for consumers.

A better article on the same topic comes from Greentech Media from earlier this summer (and has been sitting open in my browser to be blogged for too long!). In it Katherine Tweed argues that the current, first generation of smart appliances are oversold relative to their features. Without saying it explicitly, she makes the point that these first-generation smart appliances are expensive and likely to appear to early adopters — buyers more at the Viking end of the product line than the bottom of the Whirlpool line. She also, correctly, points out that if the value proposition to the consumer is saving money by reducing energy savings, the smart appliance features do not contribute much at the margin beyond the EnergyStar appliance standard; so if you are buying to save money by saving energy, you aren’t going to get much bang for the buck at the margin by choosing a smart fridge over an EnergyStar fridge. But as I remarked earlier, that’s not the only value proposition, because consumers care about other features.

It’s going to take some time to get the technology integration across the value chain to create all of these features, from spoilage detection to transactive automated response to dynamic pricing to preferentially choosing green power to sending the beer order to the store when my supply is low. It’s also going to take some choice in terms of electricity pricing for residential customers, and (surprise surprise) monopoly utilities and regulators are dragging their feet on that front. But don’t dismiss smart appliances today simply because V1.0 isn’t perfect. V1.0 never is.

ETA: I also recommend reading the comment thread on the Greentech Media article; it has a good back-and-forth about dynamic pricing.

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2 thoughts on “Smart appliances and the innovation cycle

  1. We have a 14 year old refrigerator with an internal ice maker. We have used it infrequently as we prefer to buy bagged ice. Yet the ice maker still works.

    My best friend has a 5 year old fridge with ice maker and ice and water dispenser in the door. It doesn’t work any longer and they currently make ice in trays.

    I suppose if the regulators weren’t dragging their feet on pricing my friend’s and my electric bills would be $20 more a month, but we’d have high end models that work, and a utility company ready to come fix any problems. Sounds like a plan–smart grid will save us all, because we all want it.

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