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Summary:

The connected washing machine is getting some love, but when it comes to connecting appliances many vendors are missing the true value of connectivity. It’s not about selling filters, but about providing information and easing friction.

GE's connected washing machine

Move over internet iceboxes, this decade’s most hyped connected appliance may well turn out to be the washing machine. A fridge that orders more milk for you when run out is still tough to implement because it’s hard to get all the players to share data and work together. But a connected washing machine could be much simpler.

For example, at the IFA show in Germany this weekend, IBM and Texas Instruments showed off a connected washing machine concept that used TI’s modules to connect the appliance (it has a microcontroller and a radio) and IBM’s cloud. In the release TI explained that this connectivity might help automate the delivery of laundry detergent or help with repairs, but those are pretty lame examples if you want people to buy a connected washing machine. I can heft my container of Tide and know when I need to buy more. I don’t need a connected appliance connected to the cloud for that. The service example is better for the technicians, but they aren’t the person shelling out for a connected washing machine.

That type of thinking is the wrong way to approach connected appliances. Unless connectivity is just built in and doesn’t change the cost of the machine, automated detergent delivery isn’t going to be the killer app that gets consumers on board. You have to think about what will truly solve an existing problem.

There’s actually a brilliant reason to connect a washing machine, it’s just not designed for the home. You connect a washing machine for the same reason you connect a parking meter — so you can pay for it with a credit card or even PayPal. Plus, you can also then reserve washing machines and track when your clothes are done. In a commercial setting or dorms and apartments where washing machines (and dryers!) are shared resources, tracking which ones are available, reserving open machines, and paying without a fistful of quarters are excellent reasons to connect them.

Much like we needed Apple and Amazon to store our credit card data to make micro purchases easier, we need connected resources to make the sharing economy work. Connecting a car, a parking meter, a hotel room or a washing machine to the internet eases friction in payments and makes information more freely available.

Once you look at it from that point of view it becomes a lot more interesting to think about what to connect. Perhaps the real news coming from the show and from various other events in recent weeks is just how easy it’s becoming to get something online. Last week Qualcomm followed Broadcom in announcing a Wi-Fi module that has Wi-Fi plus enough brains to get the device onto a network. Such modules can slot into existing products from manufacturers to add connectivity cheaply and easily.

Also at IFA DigitalStrom showed off a LEGO-inspired module that people can attach to an existing appliance and connect to a mesh network in the home created with other DigitalStrom modules. The resulting network can be programmed to interact within the home from a smartphone. So you could pop one of these sensors on your treadmill and when it turns on your TV could also turn on. These modules connect the devices over the existing power lines, so anything with a plug could get connected.

And the idea of smart home is clearly a killer app for connected devices, so figuring out how to deploy and create rules for more intelligent and automated actions inside the home are worth pursuing. But, the high-value connected devices in a smart home are more likely to be switches thermostats and security paraphernalia (sensors, cameras and motion detector) as opposed to appliances.

The key to connected devices is they connect to each other and to you — not that they connect back to someone trying to sell you more detergent. We’ll discuss this concept more at our Mobilize conference next month where we’ll dissect different business models and opportunities for connected devices.

  1. I have little or no interest in connected technology for products that should last 10 or more years. What good would it do me if my current washing machine could communicate with Palm devices?

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  2. Actually the beauty of a connected device that can be on or off at different times should lie in the fact that with a data connection to my electricity provider, I can load the the washing machine or dryer (assuming that you don’t have a natural gas dryer) and can be turned on when power prices are lower. As more jurisdictions move to time of day pricing, I can load the washing maching before I go to sleep, and it can turn on when the utility tells me that prices have dropped. With true dynamic pricing, I can set a power price that’s acceptable to me and have the machine kick on at that time.

    A connected fridge is of less value because I don’t have my produce bar coded, and I always want it to be powered on.

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