The case for the smart refrigerator
January 16, 2017  

I’ve been pushing back on people who ridicule the idea of adding Internet connectivity to household gadgets, particularly computer security people who think this is doomed to failure. First, I defended connected lightbulbs, then shower heads, hair brushes, trash cans, and windows. Now it’s time for refrigerators.

But first, let’s talk about egg timers.

Egg timers

I used to have an egg timer in my kitchen:

It’s a great product, simple, cheap, and dependable. It’s very easy to use, which is important when you are cooking. You can buy one for $5 or less.

Recently I received a replacement as a gift:

The replacement, an Amazon Echo, improves on the egg timer by providing multiple timers with hands-free voice control.

The Echo also has many, many disadvantages compared to my old timer. It requires electricity and an Internet connection, it can get confused in a noisy kitchen, it listens to all of your conversations, and it costs $180, about 35 times the cost of the timer it replaced.

OK, to be fair, while I use the Echo as a kitchen timer, my family uses it for many other things. They use it to listen to music, to hear the news, get the weather report, look up things on Wikipedia, and they ask it to tell jokes. Not only does it replace the egg timer, it also replaces aspects of newspapers, radios, smart phones, televisions, and books. It’s very popular; people seem to think it’s worth the money.

The rest of the industry has noticed: at the latest Consumer Electronics Show, Alexa (the AI persona of the Echo) was integrated into a slew of products, ranging from robots to, yes, refrigerators.

Smart refrigerators

You see a lot of bad products at CES. It’s where the consumer electronics industry shows all of its wild ideas, in hopes that a small number will be hits. It’s the “fail fast” proving grounds of the industry.

Naturally, many of these products will crash and burn, but I don’t think of them as “dumb,” any more than a genetic mutation is “dumb.” They are the byproducts of an evolutionary, “survival of the fittest” strategy. It’s not “dumb” to add Internet connectivity to a consumer electronics product, when you consider this wider strategy.

The smart refrigerator is actually a bit more clever than just a random mutation. Many people want a TV in their kitchen; they’re certainly going to have a refrigerator. It makes sense to offer a refrigerator that incorporates a TV that doesn’t take up counter space and does not require a separate electrical outlet. If you throw in some refrigerator-specific functionality (cameras to see what’s in the refrigerator without opening the door, inventory tracking and ordering, whatever), so much the better.

Furthermore, in consumer electronics it is now clear that: (1) there are going to be a lot of connected gadgets; (2) it makes sense to have a hub to control and configure them; (3) people like voice interfaces, maybe even more than touchscreen interfaces; (4) a logical place for the hub is the kitchen. The inevitable result is that there is going to be a battle to be the kitchen smart hub.

The Alexa-integrated smart refrigerator is a play to become the kitchen smart hub. I think it has a decent shot at it. There’s no question that every kitchen will have a refrigerator. It seems like a better candidate for smart hub integration than the other mandatory kitchen appliances (oven, microwave, toaster oven). Its competition is the separate smart hub (Amazon Echo, Google Home), or an integration with an audio system or television; maybe a desktop PC (iMac, etc.).

Maybe the gamble fails; but it’s worth a try.

The role of security experts

IoT has a lot of interesting and difficult security challenges. It’s our job to create solutions, not mock the inevitable.