Smart Appliances: Dumb Idea?

In 1950, science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury envisioned the creepy Happylife Home. "It clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them," he wrote. But Bradbury never thought of Internet-ready refrigerators. Some onlookers aren't sure why we're getting them now.

At last week's International Builders Show, reported the Washington Post, GE showed off a fridge that could read bar codes and reorder from online grocers when the food supply runs low. Whirlpool's new fridge included a wireless pad for downloading recipes. At another trade show, Sunbeam announced plans for an alarm clock that turns off the electric blanket and a scale that sends your weight to the gym. Despite the obvious hooks, the Post's Jura Koncius and Maryann Haggerty kept the gee-whiz factor mercifully low. Commenting that "consumers have been hearing about the Smart Home for a millennium or so," they wondered if appliances' electronic conversations would simply be arguments about networking protocols. After all, some appliance-makers have deals with Sun, and some have them with Microsoft. The Post's conclusion seemed to be that for most consumers, a networked kitchen would be more trouble than it'd be worth.

San Jose Mercury News writer Jon Healey took a similarly dim view of the wired home. First, he wrote, it probably won't exist. The average consumer won't want it, and won't want to pay for it. Only the truly lazy, implied Healey, would go for some of this stuff. "Don't like to use a measuring cup?" he wrote, "The mixer's sensors will tell you when to stop pouring." Bradbury's Happylife Home was ultimately dystopian, and Healey found one "bleeding-edge kind of guy" who found smart appliances scary. Reluctant to surrender his family's shopping habits and other data to appliance corporations, software company president Gene Powers said, "It's kind of a Big Brother issue."

On the other hand, some techies are intrigued. Healey also talked to a San Jose software engineer who dug the "coolness factor" and convenience of Net-enabling his house. Web browsing on your blender! E-mail on your humidifier! Maybe next year.

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