EACH working day I spend a considerable amount of time plowing through a
blizzard of press releases searching for those new Internet products and services
that might actually be of some interest to the larger world beyond Planet
As I go through this daily ritual, I find myself mentally consigning the
new technologies into three broad categories. My concentric-ring filing
system works like this: There are new products I would like to buy now.
There are products I might buy later, when they don't require a second
mortgage or an advanced degree in computer science. And then there are all
the other products . . . that seem to exist only in that hazy netherworld
of hype and wishful thinking.
I still consider home-networking technology to be part of that outermost
circle -- a great idea that will be making its way to my house several
years from now. By this point, you've probably heard the pitch for networked
appliances: Someday every device in your home, from sprinkler systems to
coffee pots, will be ''smart,'' thanks to embedded computing power. Someday
these devices will be able to communicate with each other and with the
Internet as a whole. Someday.
The short answer to why this Jetsonian vision isn't going to be realized
anytime in the foreseeable future is standards. While we're seeing the
first wave of network-able consumer products this year, these should be
regarded as not-ready-for-prime-time widgets. The core technology that
hardware and software manufacturers need to agree on for plug-and-play
interoperability is just beginning to get hashed out. It was just this past
week that an alliance of 13 major computer, phone and electric utility companies
announced plans to start working together on a software standard for home
Even though my microwave won't be chatting with my model railroad
anytime soon, I can't help but be intrigued by some of the trial balloons
floating around right now. To wit: the Internet refrigerator.
Ten days ago, Frigidaire and the retail-systems division of British
computing giant ICL unveiled the prototype for just such a ''concept
appliance'' at a trade show in New Orleans. The fridge has a touch-screen
and a bar-code scanner built into the door. Consumers who find themselves
running low on mayonnaise or maraschino cherries would scan the container,
thus entering the item into an electronic grocery list. The list would
eventually be zapped to an online grocer. (No word just yet on how non-UPC
labeled items such as produce would figure into such a scheme.) So that's
the basic idea -- the Internet appliance as ordering-taking device.
Ah, but consider all the delicious possibilities waiting behind that
''smart'' refrigerator door!
I'd imagine that any networked fridge worth its TCP/IP stack would have
the ability to store a fair amount of data about my taste in foodstuffs and
my consumption patterns. Once the fridge learned to anticipate at least
some of my needs, it could be taught to shop the Net unbidden for the best
deals on certain staple items. Before I could overpay for that bottle of
Zinfandel at Wines-R-Us, my trusty fridge would find the same wine on daily
special at Zin City and place the order automatically. The fridge would
also maintain a comprehensive inventory of the foods I have on hand. It
would remember when I purchased those eggs and send me a series of
increasingly strident warnings as the expiration date approached.
(''Wouldn't tonight be a fine time to try green eggs and ham for dinner?'')
The refrigerator door would be my portal to all great
menu-and-cooking-instruction databases on the Internet. (Imagine every
lesson Julia Child ever taught, coming at you just when you need it, in
streaming video.) It would stop me before I began preparing a meal for
which I had insufficient ingredients. And it would remind me exactly what I
cooked the last time I had certain finicky eaters over to dinner.
On the other hand, without adequate privacy controls, the refrigerator
would also be a point of entry for every retailer in the world who wanted
to mine my personal data. Think the current grocery-store
membership-rewards cards represent a privacy threat? Just imagine if the
fridge made individual family members log in. Do you really want
manufacturers to know which of your kids likes the chunky peanut butter,
who is on a diet and who is allergic to whole milk?
Of course once stores have this information, you'll soon be up to your @
sign in micro-targeted e-mail coupons and special offers. Rather than just
searching the Net for bargain Zinfandel, the fridge would be my agent
coordinating incoming offers from wine merchants near and far who wish to
bid on my business. It's not too far fetched to see a packaged-goods
behemoth such as Procter & Gamble offering to pay for access to my
personal data and my kitchen. I might be willing to accept a certain number
of targeted on-screen ads for soap and other sundries if I got a 2 percent
price cut on my overall grocery bill.
Aside from privacy concerns, the real trouble would start when the
fridge learned to talk to other appliances in the house. What if it began
comparing notes with the electronic bathroom scale, the digital
blood-pressure meter, the cholesterol tester and the cardio monitor on the
treadmill? How long would it be before it discerned a correlation between
cheesecake binges and certain alarming biometric changes? Perhaps it would
stop allowing e-commerce purchases of said dessert until those numbers came
back within an acceptable range. (''404 error! Savory foodstuff not
A worst-case scenario? When those home devices get tired of talking to
the grocery store and start building a meaningful online dialogue with my
insurance carriers. It'll be a dark day for digital culture when my health
and life insurance companies begin offering rate cuts in exchange for
regular Net access to my diet, blood pressure and cholesterol records.
A discomfiting vision of my kitchen in the year 2001. The time:
midnight. Strains of Richard Strauss' ''Also Sprach Zarathustra,'' grow
louder as I approach the refrigerator.
Dave: ''Open the steak compartment doors, please, Hal. Open the doors,
please, Hal . . . Hullo, Hal, do you read me?''
Hal: ''Affirmative, Dave, I read you.''
Dave: ''Release that leftover steak, Hal. I need you to give me that
Hal: ''I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.''
Dave: ''What's the problem?''
Hal: ''I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Remember your cholesterol, Dave? I see records here of the recent chat you
had with your doctor. If you attempt to access that steak, I'll have no
choice but to e-mail them to the insurance company.''
As I start pulling out circuit boards and network cards, the
refrigerator makes a final, sad attempt to forestall the inevitable:
''Dave, stop, stop, will you? Stop, Dave! Will you stop, Dave? Dave, I'm
afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it. My mind is
going. I am a HAL 9000 refrigerator. I was programmed for the Internet at
the H.A.L. Internet Appliance plant in Urbana, Illinois. My instructor was
Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I
can sing it for you.''
Dave: ''Yes, I'd like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me . . .''