Appliances Get Smart

It seems as if almost everyone in the home appliances parade is marching to the tune of machines with smarts.

Maytag, General Electric, and Sunbeam all made announcements this week, cooking up visions of Web-enabled refrigerators and remotely monitored microwaves.

Both Maytag and General Electric (GE) will pursue joint ventures with Microsoft Corp., which drives the Universal Plug-and-Play (UPnP) initiative, to develop smart home appliances. But it's still in the early stages of development.

Coming Soon to a Kitchen Near You

"Home networking is all about getting control and convenience back to us," says Greg Sullivan, product manager for Microsoft's Windows group. "We'll still have all this stuff to do but we can do it on our own terms."

The first product featuring the underlying UPnP technology will be the next consumer version of Windows, expected to ship in the second half of this year, Sullivan says.

In one scenario served up by Maytag Chief Executive Officer Lloyd D. Ward, consumers could conceivably watch a cooking program on an interactive TV set and send the recipe to the refrigerator, which in turn would shoot off a list of ingredients to your handy online grocer.

"The kitchen in our view is the heart of the home," says Terry Dunn, general manager of global communications for GE Appliances. "People are spending money on premium brands to make a fashion statement in the home."

When Is It Really Cooked?

So when will products such as the Web-enabled refrigerator with detachable Web pad actually come to consumer fruition?

"We're showing these products right now -- these are real products," Dunn says.

"We could do it this year if we wanted to."

The key component to this new generation of devices is consumer research, according to Dunn. "We want to understand how consumers interact with this technology," he says.

Around-The-Clock Help

Sunbeam has created a subsidiary called Thalia Products; Thalia stands for Thinking and Linking Intelligent Appliances. Thalia products are based on Home Linking Technology. HLT appliances will be able to work with UPnP appliances, according to Sunbeam representatives.

The kitchen isn't the only room that's gaining intelligence. The Thalia TimeHelper alarm clock acts as a household helper that can send and receive commands to and from other smart products like the Smart Sunbeam coffeemaker.

When you readjust your alarm clock, the TimeHelper resets the clocks on all connected appliances.

The HomeHelper Kitchen Console is essentially a monitor equipped with a built-in modem. The screen displays all the appliances around the house that are linked to it. The HandHelper personal digital assistant is the portable version.

Open The Refrigerator Door, HAL

So what do you do when your appliances become smarter than you?

"In my opinion, no appliance will ever be smarter than me," Dunn says.

Microsoft's Sullivan has a different take: "We'll always be able to unplug them."

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