The Revenge of the Smart Appliance

whirlpool-centralpark-connectionVisitors to the lab will probably have noticed the fairly high tech refrigerator in our kitchen. It’s got a nifty little LCD screen on it that allows us to watch television and the like while we stand and stare at the refrigerator. What newer visitors may not, though, is that we originally had a refrigerator that had a detachable tablet that would allow you to visit websites, check your email, create a photo album and leave notes for other family members (the refrigerator also had its own Internet address which would enable you to connect and, say, melt all the ice cream from Taiwan if you wanted).

The thing was ungodly expensive, though, at about $6,000 when they came out, and Samsung, the company that produced the thing, eventually stopped making it after presumably discovering that people weren’t really willing to pay that much, even for remote-turkey-defrosting abilities.

Understandably, I was a little surprised this year when I wandered past the Whirlpool booth and happened to see something that looked eerily similar to what we’d basically had to scrap when we couldn’t find any more parts for it. Were these so-called "smart appliances" actually coming back into fashion?

Well, not really, no, so my dreams of owning an Internet-enabled seltzer bottle are still shattered, but this Whirlpool centralpark refrigerator might actually make it. Here’s why:

Unlike the relatively awkward features that the old refrigerator’s tablet had, this one has a purpose. See, Whirlpool teamed up with Cozi, a Web 2.0-style service that supposed to help families manage schedules and organize chores and shopping lists and things like that. That software will now appear on the tablet, providing a centralized location for organizing the house.

Yeah, this thing also does neat stuff like charge your mobile devices and have iPod speakers and it has a digital picture frame and it can make its own tiramisu (kidding about the last one… I think), but I really think the killer app for this refrigerator is going to be the familial organization aspect. Instead of just mindlessly adding Internet access to devices like manufacturers did with the first round of "smart appliances" swept through, now these things have a genuine purpose that, they hope, fills a niche. That’s a little bit like what Bill Gates talked about in his keynote, right? One of the factors that going to be shaping the future of technology?

Another interesting aspect of this thing is that it’s modularized, meaning, essentially, you can snap on new devices and features to the thing down the line, allowing a fairly wide range of customizations. Hey! That sounds a whole lot like widgets… you know, those little applications that were making Facebook so famous a few months back. It looks like at least Whirlpool has really been paying attention to what’s been influencing the Internet and technology industries.