Information Appliances (Or Home on the Digital Range)
How many times have you read about or seen a feature or a news clip on TV on the "kitchen of the future"? How often have you been told that you can start your morning coffee from your bedroom as soon as you sit up in bed, or turn on your lights and TV simply by dialing a code into your cellular phone from thousands of miles away? Or link your refrigerator to the Internet?
The goal of a growing number of companies is to create an entirely new market segment by developing a standardized platform that would enable your stove to communicate with Internet-enabled information appliances. These IAs, as they're called, are variously described as a stripped-down, low-cost, easy-to-use, sometimes special-purpose alternative to the personal computer that is usually tied into the Internet. "There will come a time, in the not-too-distant future," says the Consumer Electronics Association, "when this will all seem ordinary, even pass ."
Hype-generated as it is, this market has stalled before it got into second gear. What some still call the home integrated systems (HIS) market has grown very gradually since a device called X-10 first introduced automated lighting control in the late 1970s. More than 100 million X-10 devices were sold through 1999, but even the Consumer Electronics Association admits that the X-10 is an anomaly in the 20-year history of home control.
According to a 1998 survey by the association called Integrated Home Systems Potential, only 12% of consumers have some type of HIS, which the association defines as a system that allows consumers to manage some or all of their home's lighting, audio and video, security, energy, and communications.
The hype has been rampant for years. Manufacturers of small appliances (electric products that usually sit on top of a counter) and major appliances (such as dishwashers, ovens, and washing machines), along with some consumer electronic manufacturers continue to talk a good game, but they know that a mass market for automating this stuff is a long way off. "The biggest problem," wrote one magazine editor, "is the apathy of the end user to such systems." In other words, very few people actually want it or perceive a need for a refrigerator that tells them or their PC when they're almost out of milk. In fact, of those households that do not have a home system, 46% of those surveyed by the Consumer Electronics Association said they did not have a need for an integrated home network.
The technology is in place, even if the market is still very much in limbo. Current technical "solutions" include Microsoft's Universal Plug-and-Play (UPnP) and Jini, which is being heavily promoted by Sun Microsystems. Both systems can intercommunicate, and both have received strong backing from major appliance manufacturers, but consumers still aren't on board. GE, Maytag, and Whirlpool each plan to develop refrigerators and ovens that can be connected to both the Internet and/or a home network. Why are they doing this?
"It's fairly easy to imagine the benefit, given that many savvy cooks already log on in the kitchen to download recipes," says the Consumer Electronics Association, albeit from their home PC. As the trade association sees it, an Internet-enabled stove would be able to set itself according to cooking instructions downloaded to it from a Frugal Gourmet Web site. At the same time, the Internet fridge could take any inventory of the ingredients needed for the recipe. The fridge could also print out a grocery list and place the order with an online grocer. A bar code reader built onto the face of the microwave could automatically set the power level and timer the instant the cook waved a package of food in front of it. A residential gateway could leverage other Web-based services such as performance upgrades, warranty registration, remote diagnostics, and energy management features.
The next obvious step is to have these "connected" appliances communicate with each other over a universal home network. Whirlpool's concept refrigerator, which could be on the market in a few years, features a built-in touchscreen used to access the Internet, store messages, and control other electronic devices in the home. You can detach the touchscreen to cue the stereo, adjust the intensity of the lights, and post a family schedule. Similar products are in development by other manufacturers.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been playing around with kitchen technology for years. To pursue a "vision of the future" in domestic technology, interested graduate students and faculty advisors have formed a group cleverly named Counter Intelligence, which is supported by a tightly knit set of projects called Kitchen Sync. With Kitchen Sync, a microwave oven could, for example, correlate cooking time to weight. Another Kitchen Sync development is Mr. Java, an intelligent coffee machine, which can identify the user of the cup and prepare coffee to the cup owner's liking. Then there is the Kitchen Sync Chocolate Cake Scenario. It's right out of Star Trek. As described by grad student Joseph Kaye, you would announce "Kitchen," bringing Kitchen Sync out of its digital slumber. "I'd like to make a chocolate cake for dessert tonight." Kitchen Sync also reminds you where you put the ingredients and then offers the recipe. It also suggests ingredient substitutions, such as the use of low-fat chocolate. From there, it's only a matter of sliding the cake into the preheated oven and waiting until Kitchen Sync tells you when to take it out.
Another project keeps track of overall consumption of coffee, including dividing the data by day and by hour over time. For example, when MIT researchers first tried this a few years ago, they discovered that coffee use peaked at 11 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. This information was, according to a white paper produced by one of the graduate students at the time, of great interest to many of its sponsors, including Maxwell House and Procter & Gamble (owner of Folgers), who have spent a lot of time and effort tracking usage statistics such as these, historically by hand.
Another MIT application is a refrigerator, known as Cool I/O (for input/output), that keeps track of its contents, with the dates that an item entered the fridge or was used, and its expiration date. Also on MIT's development wish list: Cameras above stoves to ensure that a watched pot never boils over, and trash cans that tell you when they are full. Cool I/O is projected as a 10-year program in terms of actually getting it into the market.
Again, who really needs this stuff? Hardly anyone, according to Andrew M. Odlyzko, the head of the Mathematics & Cryptography Research Department at AT&T Labs, who wrote The Visible Problems of the Invisible Computers: A Skeptical Look at Information Appliances in 1999. Published in the online journal First Monday (http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/odlyzko), Odlyzko's take is that no one has really figured out how to make these information appliances work together. "The interaction of the coffee pot, the car, the smart fridge, and the networked camera will create a new layer of complexity. In the rush toward the digital era, we will continue to live right on the edge of intolerable frustration."
This hasn't stopped the market research community from priming the IA pump. In 2000, Parks Associates projected that information appliances will outstrip PCs in the United States by as early as 2001. Parks said its research suggests that 22 million in-home information appliances (excluding Internet-enabled mobile phones and telematics systems in vehicles) will ship in the United States in 2001, compared with 18 million PCs in the same year. By 2005, Parks forecasted, total revenue from all information appliances (again, excluding Internet-enabled cellphones and telematics systems) will reach $33.7 billion. Another market researcher, International Data Corp., has been saying almost the same thing: that, by 2002, more information appliances will be sold to consumers than PCs. Dataquest also sees 2002 as IAs' watershed year, with measurable growth in TV-enabled Internet access devices, including set-top boxes and dedicated Web tablets.
And while PCs are pretty much compatible with each other, most new and emerging information appliances are not. By one analyst's count, at least 60 different companies were racing to get an information appliance to market before the end of 2000. So far, few have made any formal product introductions, and one of the biggest reasons is that they can't figure out what system architecture will work best in a market where manufacturers are pretty much doing their own thing. For the moment, there are no technical standards for IA. And fixing this problem is not one of the stated goals of the Internet Home Alliance.
Formed in October 2000 this nonprofit association of high-tech manufacturers and retailers has chosen to focus on "catalyzing the home technology industry and fueling mass adoption of connected technology by focusing on solving consumer dilemmas through the Internet Lifestyle." It will have its hands full. 3Com, an early IA player and hardly a lightweight in the consumer marketplace, shut down its Web appliance division early in 2001 and discontinued its retail product, the Audrey Web tablet. At about the same time, Gateway, which barely got its IA product out of the box, said it was "rethinking" its next move in the category.
Why did 3Com drop Audrey? "While we continue to believe in the potential for Audrey," 3Com said in a news release, "there are indications the market will take longer to develop than originally planned and require additional investment." Which 3Com indicated it was not prepared to do at the time.
Netpliances introduced i-opener, powered by AT&T WorldNet Service and scheduled to be available from QVC, the electronic retailer, but that also hasn't gone very far. Vtech, meanwhile, introduced its e-Mail PostBox and Address Book to Yahoo! customers in the fall of 2000, but the company has since revised its business plan, merging its IA and PDA units into its consumer telephone business division. Merinta, an appliance infrastructure company, has closed up shop. Others are still in the hunt for developing a legitimate IA mass market, including Cidco, Inc., which had sold more than 70,000 of its MailStation "personal Internet communications products" by the end of 2000. Cidco then introduced two cordless e-mail appliances. One of these, the Mivo 350, displays text and graphics on a 16-grayscale LCD screen, supports HP DeskJet 600 and 900 series color inkjet printers, provides a photo album that lets users store up to 10 pictures for printing on the HP printers, and provides storage for up to 400 e-mails, 100 HTML pages, and 5 photos. The Mivo 350 also incorporates personalized Internet options such as local weather, news, stock quotes, horoscope, TV listings, and other features, delivered as HTML Web pages and reformatted to fit the Mivo 350 screen. Users can scroll up and down to view entire HTML pages, just as on a PC.
Heavyweights such as Compaq Computer and Microsoft are selling Compaq's iPaq Pocket PC, a PDA they promote as an IA device for accessing and eventually controlling communications-based Internet appliances. At the same time, Intel Corp. and Compaq are collaborating on the development of wireless handheld communications devices used to access and transmit data over the Internet, including IA applications. And Sony is promoting its eVilla Network Entertainment Center, saying that it offers "the best of the Internet without the hassles of a computer and gives you more entertainment and features than a standard Internet appliance." Samsung Electronics has also begun commercial installations of smart home appliances in a 100-apartment residential complex that is based on Echelon Corp.'s technologyessentially, a system that networks air conditioners, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and washing machines. Using a wireless Web pad, PC, or mobile phone, residents can control and monitor each device over the Internet, perform remote diagnostics, and check user guides.
Little has been heard from Nokia since early 2002 when it announced the formation of Nokia Home Communications, a new business unit it set up to develop Internet-based technology for the home. Japan's NEC Corp. has also yet to ship the 400 megabyte per second wireless transmission technology for networking home appliances that it announced in January 2000. (NEC's plans called for commercializing the device by the end of 2000.)
Networking giant Cisco Systems is working with Echelon, a control systems specialist, and Microsoft has licensed control technology from Intellon. Companies promoting Sun Microsystems' Java OS formed the Open Service Gateway initiative in 1999 to promote Java-based home networking, and virtually every manufacturer of home automation products has joined the Home API to develop application programming interfaces that would enable third-party software developers to create home-control programs based on the Microsoft Windows operating system.
That said, other issues will soon become apparent to well-informed consumers, particularly those early adopters with an interest in technology. One is the rapidly shrinking availability of Internet addresses. In theory at least, as pointed out earlier in this book, the current system will likely max out when it is hooked into 4.3 billion computers and other devices, or about twice the number currently assigned. With the continued growth of the Internet, and the introduction over the next few years of potentially millions of new, portable, Internet-enabled wireless devices, and the possibility of a totally new category of information appliances under development, with each of these or a tightly knit network of these appliances linked to the Internet, the problem starts to take shape. Most people who track these things anticipate that there will be several billion Internet-enabled devices in use in the world by 2006, but without the numeric address capability to support all of them.
There is something called Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), an upgrade of the current IPv4 technical standard, that is designed to handle the more than 4 billion new Internet addresses, but IPv6 may not be fully in place until at least 2006. Meanwhile, Internet use continues to grow, particularly outside North America.
Another thing: Should homeowners who buy information appliances worry about hackers, or anyone else, tapping into their Internet-linked refrigerators to look at its contents? (In this case, "only your doctor knows for sure" no longer applies.)
Want them or not, appliances will eventually be available with new, highly sophisticated features and functions, whichlike those available in your VCRyou may never use.
About the time 2001: A Space Odyssey was making its way to movie screens across the country, a computer programmer friend of mine, who also fancied himself a gourmet cook, was trying to use what he thought were artificial intelligence (AI) techniquesat least those that were available to him at the timeto create new recipes under very specific conditions. Convinced that you could not simply double the ingredients of a recipe for, say, four people, when you were expecting eight for dinner, and expect to get the same results, he attempted to write a computer program that would enable him to produce a recipe that would accurately match the original recipe in taste and texture, complete with a new set of ingredient levels and measures. He hoped to do this with virtually any dish he wanted to serve. He worked on this project for a long time, but he never could get it to work.