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Grumpy tech guy: Are smart appliances aimed at dummies?

Tue, 6th Sep 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Tech expos such as CES and IFA have driven some monumentally stupid tech trends. Some are so bizarre that they're cool (my favourite of the moment is SGNL's watch strap. It uses bone conductance to transform your fingers into a phone receiver, allowing you to make a phone gesture with your hand and make phone calls for real using a Bluetooth paired smartphone).

Others are just lame.

Take the ongoing insistence from appliance makers that we'll all want smart fridges. If you want to know a smart fridge works, here's how to make your own:

All you need is one cheap android tablet (about $55 via Aliexpress.com), a roll of duct tape ($13.95 from the red shed), and a fridge ($120 through trademe.co.nz).

  1. Using the duct Tape, stick the said tablet to the fridge door. 
  2. Install a lame (and free) shopping list app onto the tablet.

Voila! you are now the owner of a smart fridge, total cost $188.95.

Appliance makers have been trying to get Joe and Joanne public to part with a thick wad of cash to buy one of these smart appliances and funnily enough, the category hasn't really taken off.

This is bit of a shame, because from a techie standpoint some of the functionality is actually quite clever. On some smart fridges, their touch screen display will allow you to order food from the fridge door. Taking the display concept a step further, the screen built into some smart fridges can even turn transparent so you can see the inside your fridge.

It sounds cool (refrigeration pun intended) but the reality is that most of these techie flourishes are more often than not a solution looking for a problem to solve and a gimmick that'll turn into a costly liability over the longer term.

Most cost a bomb – the starting price for Smart Fridges demonstrated at IFA in Berlin was around the US$5k (NZ$6,843.53) mark. I don't know about you, but that strikes me as a lot of money to splash out on an appliance.

A smart fridge like so many other gadgets will eventually crap out. It'll be expensive to fix and getting it repaired will leave you without a fridge. Given the central (but quietly under appreciated) role the humble fridge plays, being without one isn't an ideal situation.

Then there's the whole practicality angle.

Do these smart fridges actually make life any easier? If opening the fridge door to see what's in the fridge is too much of a chore then great, you've saved yourself 15 seconds. Shame you had to pay such a whacking great premium to do so.

So what about being able to order food from your fridge door? At a product planning meeting, this probably made a crap-ton of sense.

Being able to peek inside that white box and then order groceries online could be a real time saver and is an easy thing to sell to gullible punters.

But here's the thing - it is something that I can already do using a smartphone or tablet. It certainly isn't worth such a huge price premium.

I can only conclude that smart fridges may be aimed at not-so-smart consumers?

Ok so maybe I'm being a Tech-Grinch. After all, why shouldn't we all lust after a jetsons like future of convenience and push button ease?

Trouble is that the reality of such a gee-wiz future kind of sucks.

Smart gadgets that'll automate your home are out there. They'll often function through their warranty period, but then wear out, needing a costly repair. I have two Roombas that both died not long after their warranty ran out. My ageing old school low-tech vacuum cleaner that I have to (gasp!) manually push around the house still works fine.

In short more gee-wiz equals more things to break and more money spent on repairs.

Then there's the added level of complication some of these smart appliances can bring into your life. Interoperability and compatibility issues are rife and can transform that utopian vision of the future sold to you at the store into a tech support nightmare where tech support people point the finger at each other and deny responsibility. Meanwhile you're left with an appliance that you rely on not working.

The real irony is that we spend a fortune on gadgets with the expectation being that they'll make life more convenient, freeing up time for a more leisurely existence. The reality is often that we end up working more because we bought them. Sigh.

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