Home appliance networking?

Philip Greenspun's Homepage : Philip Greenspun's Homepage Discussion Forums : Ask Philip : One Thread
Notify me of new responses
What developments do you expect in the area of home appliance networking?

-- Claudio Gatti, December 22, 1996


Gerry Sussman loves to pull a huge N ("Navy") RF connector out of his desk drawer to show MIT students how it can be mated with the small BNC ("Bayonet Navy Connector") for expediency. "These were both designed during World War II," Gerry will say. "You don't get strain relief but it makes a perfectly good contact in an emergency. The guys who designed these connectors were brilliant. On the other hand, there has been a commission meeting in Europe for 15 years trying to come up with a common powerplug standard."

The point of this story is that the problems of home appliance networking are human and business problems, not technical problems. There is no reason why a Sony CD player shouldn't have been able to communicate intelligently with a Pioneer receiver 10 years ago. Both machines contain computers. How come when you hit "Play" on the CD player, the receiver doesn't turn itself on and switch its input to CD?

Why can't a Nikon camera talk to Minolta's wireless flash system? Or, for that matter, why can't this year's Nikon camera talk intelligently to last year's NIKON flash?

Though the computer industry has had its problems with monopoly, there was always at least one buyer large enough to insist on interoperability, i.e., the U.S. Federal government. Many of the standards in the computer industry are due to federal funding or purchasing contract conditions.

With home appliances you have a handful of huge companies and buyers who are too disorganized to insist on standards. General Electric's appliance division, the market leader in the U.S., isn't even a sponsor of the Consumer Electronics Bus consortium. IBM is. AT&T Bell Labs is. Hewlett-Packard is. So if you can figure out how to fry an egg on your PC or telephone then you'll have a really smart house.

All of this said, I think that companies like GE will start to put Internet interfaces into their appliances as soon as 20% of American households are wired for full-time Internet (e.g., with cable modems). But they won't do it because they think it is cool for your GE fridge to talk to your Whirlpool dishwasher. They'll do it because it will cut the cost of tech support for them. Instead of paying someone to wait on the 800 line while you poke around with your head underneath the fridge looking for the serial number, they'll want to ping your fridge across the Internet and find out the model, its current temperature, and whether there are any compressor failures.

Support is the one thing that brilliant engineers overlook. Brilliant engineers see the world as full of marvelous products that consumers take home and enjoy glitch-free. In the real world, products go out the door. Sometimes they work. Sometimes the document is adequate. Sometimes the consumer can figure out how to make it work. But mostly every time a consumer buys a new gizmo he is letting himself in for a few days of misery and waiting in phone queues. Our society can engineer lots of things that it can't support.

When my HP Unix box or my Ascend router isn't doing what I want, a tech support person from HP or Ascend connects to my appliance, usually over the Internet, and makes it work. That's the future.

-- Philip Greenspun, December 22, 1996

I spoke to some of the folks from sun, and they're actively pursuing appliance and auto makers to put jvm's in these devices. Looks like ms beat them to it with the auto's, but there's still hope....

(maybe one day, you'll see thousands of commuters rebooting their cars on the freeway when they inexplicably stop working)

-- Kevin Long, January 15, 1998

As long as neither Sun nor MSFT get into aviation software, I'll be happy man.

-- Paul Wilson, January 19, 1998