Machine Design

Home, sweet networked home?

The networked home is being touted as the next big thing in the world of smart appliances.

But the American public might not be ready, says a recent study by consulting firm Accenture. In fact, more than half of the 4,500 consumers interviewed said "no" to a home network. The study defined a networked home as a series of devices, such as a PC or TV, and services, such as the Internet or cable, that link together through a common network and interact with each other.

It used to be that American consumers embraced more automatic appliances that promised to speed the drudgery of household chores. For example, early electric toasters worked fine if you watched them like a hawk. There was no mechanism for regulating toasting time, so you simply guessed when toast was finished and picked it up by hand. Luckily, Charles Strite invented the automatic pop-up toaster in 1919, and the public, tired of burnt toast and fingers, cheered. Early electric clothes washers saved housewives some elbow grease, but did little to save time. Clothes still had to be washed, rinsed, and then put through a wringer to remove water. Not surprisingly, when automatic washing machines -- ones that moved from one cycle to the next on their own -- entered the picture, people eagerly traded old for new. By 1953, automatic washing machines were outselling wringer washers 10 to one. Even in more recent times, added features on appliances have been sought and enjoyed. Consumers now have the convenience of programming devices that lets them, say, have a fresh cup of coffee waiting when they roll out of bed.

So why buck this next wave in smart appliances? Maybe people just don't believe networked appliances will simplify their lives. Instead, they imagine the headaches of trying to set up a network and program a multitude of appliances. The tech-savvy might delight in fiddling with all the gadgets a networked home offers, but most consumers can barely tolerate programming their VCR, let alone figuring out how to deprogram their smart refrigerator when it keeps telling them to buy milk.

And what happens when something goes wrong? Many people watch high-tech equipment fail at work everyday -- computers crash, printers jam, networks go down -- so they aren't exactly jumping at the idea of their ovens, refrigerators, and washing machines undergoing similar problems.

Considering present consumer indifference, the future of smart, networked appliances will most likely depend on marketing. Appliance manufacturers need to show people how this technology can relieve, rather than cause, stress. Although seeing as how more than half of American homes still have a VCR flashing twelve o'clock, only time will tell when society is ready for the networked lifestyle.

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