Whirlpool thinks it knows what we’ll need in our smart homes. Here’s how it will make it real

Whirlpool 6th Sense washer and dryer.

Before I consider my home smart, I’m going to need to replace my appliances. While the smart fridge is a cliché, having a smarter kitchen (that might include the fridge) or a washer and dryer that are connected to my air conditioning system will make my home more energy-efficient and could help me take full advantage of my appliances.

The question is how and when will this happen. Appliances aren’t something consumers buy every couple of years, and when they do, connectivity isn’t something most are willing to pay extra for in 2014. Even if they do pay for “smart” overs or dishwashers, there’s still a lot of uncertainty over what platforms will ultimately win. Who wants to buy a smart fridge that becomes dumb in three years?

To figure out how one appliance vendor is thinking through these questions, I spoke with Chris Quatrochi, Director of Global Consumer Design at Whirlpool to understand how adding connectivity to the company’s products changes the business but also how it views the smart home. Unsurprisingly, Quatrochi believes the smart home is a big opportunity and that the time has finally come for it to arrive. This a topic we’ll explore in considerable depth at our Structure Connect event Oct. 21 and 22 in San Francisco.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vui2CSEwOxQ&w=420&h=315]

After telling me about this 1957 video produced by Whirlpool that presages the smart kitchen, Quatrochi said that the dream of a smarter home has been longstanding. But with the acquisition of Nest by Google for $3.2 billion and the influx of products and standards, its clear there’s an immense increase in interest. However, adding connectivity to a washing machine is a complicated endeavor for a variety of reasons.

Connectivity comes at a cost

Let’s start with costs. Unlike a computer, adding Wi-Fi to an appliance can add a noticeable upticks in cost. That’s because most appliances sport relatively dumb chips, such as 8-bit or 16-bit microcontrollers. As silicon brains go, they aren’t really sufficient for managing the software and radios needed by a smart appliance, which means the vendor has to shell out for a higher end microcontroller. This will happen over time, but it’s expensive. And Quatrochi has to justify that expense.

Chart proved by IC Insights.

Chart proved by IC Insights.

“Compared to a $300 or $400 cell phone, the electronics in a washing machine are stone age in nature with tech appropriate for what that device does. Essentially, appliances aren’t very smart,” Quatrochi said. He estimates that adding intelligence to devices like a dishwasher might add $5 in costs to Whirlpool, but it also represents a trade-off. For example, Whirlpool could spend $5 on connectivity that only some people might use or spend it on developing a better sanitizing cycle in a dishwasher.

And while many companies who offer clients like Whirlpool back-end cloud offerings, will argue that Whirlpool gains by adding connectivity because now it can understand how clients are using the dishwasher or fridge and can also later use that connectivity to offer services down the line, Quatrochi is adamant that any costs added to the manufacture of an appliance will add value to the end consumer. “We’re not expecting the client to cover the cost for us to get a better service element,” Quatrochi said. “If we are not providing a very demonstrable benefit that meets our brand guidelines, then we won’t put it on the appliance.”

Changing the appliance experience

For Whirlpool those brand guidelines sound a bit cheesy — “turning every chore into an act of love” — but the net result is that if something doesn’t make a chore less time consuming, more pleasant, or easier then it has no place on the product.

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However, Quatrochi is thinking about how to use connectivity to make chores easier. In many cases that means adding context and sharing information across devices in the home. For example, Whirlpool is a Nest developer partner, and Quatrochi can see a time when your oven might tell your thermostat that it’s on and it should lower the set point to keep the home cool. It also could delay the start time of your washer or dryer if your thermostat is being controlled by your utility as part of a demand response program.

But even more interesting, context provided by your interactions with one appliance or web service might help you discover new settings or options in your other appliances. For example, what if you shopped for baby food often and your grocery list or fridge was able to tell your washing machine that you had a baby in your home. Your washing machine might suggest the sanitizing cycle as an option since baby clothes are often cleaned on that cycle.

“Over the last 100 years whenever you bought an appliance, 20 years later it did exactly the same thing” said Quatrochi. “But what if it didn’t have to? What if it was able to change? That starts to open a variety of possibilities.”

Quatrochi was reluctant to go much deeper into that thought or the services that might ensue, but it’s easy to see where context and a relationship between devices in your home and even with services out side your home might lead to shifts in what we define as an appliance or even what it means to own an appliance.

The market today and tomorrow

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And once something is connected it becomes an obligation. While Whirlpool has been around for a century, it is thinking about how it will handle connected devices that might need to live in people’s homes for a decade or longer. “The connected space is changing fast and if it costs us money ten to twenty years down the road to keep servicing the customer, we might think about charging the consumer,” Quatrochi said. “But our desire to keep offering our customers additional value over time with that connection.”

That might not be a tough sell for the early adopters, of whom Quatrochi said, “Part of the value that a user sees in connected capability is access to the undiscovered future.”

I like that phrase because it conveys the promise and the uncertainty that we’re heading toward with ubiquitous connectivity on every device. And when it comes to platforms and other trying to capture a bit of that promise, Quatrochi is staying neutral.

“The reality for us is to make sure we’re flexible enough to connect for what’s coming out winning,” Quatrochi said. “The home control is quite fragmented and will continue to be more fragmented and then likely collapse.” He estimates that will take between three and five years and at the end, “We’ll see Apple and Android with home control built into it, and some things like Wink and other big box platforms potentially become obsolete.”

In the meantime, he is focused on bringing connectivity to Whirlpool products and figuring out how to build that undiscovered future. And unfortunately for me, who just bought new appliances in 2012, Quatrochi isn’t optimistic about a connectivity retrofit for existing products. “We are looking at that option and it’s a hit or miss depending on the appliance,” he said. “Well have to look at it on a one-by-one basis.”

Looks like Whirlpool is making smart decisions. And that my house will continue to be dumb for a while longer.

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