A smart fridge that sends you a message to say your milk is going off. A clever dishwasher that automatically re-orders the rinse-aid. And an intelligent washing machine that knows - before you do - you’re nearly out of detergent. These appliances may seem like something out of The Jetsons, but thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), they’re just around the corner, coming to an Argos near you very soon.
Last week, Amazon bought its Dash Buttons across the pond and launched its re-ordering technology in the UK. These buttons allow customers to replenish their everyday household items - including toilet roll, detergent, coffee pods and even condoms - with the touch of a button. The wi-fi-enabled adhesive buttons can be placed next to the toilet, washing machine, coffee maker, and… bedside table, allowing customers to physically enact Amazon’s one-click ordering service with the push of a button.
But what these bits of branded plastic really signify is evidence of how the Internet of Things might take off beyond installing a smart thermostat in your home.
Yes, Hive’s wireless thermostat has been keeping homes remotely warm for some time, and Phillips’ smart lightbulbs allow consumers to control the light in their rooms from an app on a smartphone. You can even get a sprinkler system which connects to local weather channels to water your lawn at the optimum moment. But when it comes to consumable household appliances it still seems a little far off reality.
The classic example of the Internet of Things banded about by technologists and analysts for the last decade has been the smart fridge. This internet-connected fridge monitors its contents and re-orders items, like milk, from your local supermarket when you are running low, or alerts you when something is going out of date. Samsung has indeed created a smart fridge, called the Family Hub Refrigerator (practically a regular fridge with a tablet glued to the front), which allows customers to place grocery orders. The fridge even has a camera inside, so if you’re out shopping you can check via the app what is already at home. But these don’t come cheap and aren’t any smarter than the phone in your pocket.
Neither are Amazon’s Dash Buttons. The Amazon app on your phone has one-click ordering, so why would you need multiple branded buttons littering up your home?
But true connected commerce removes the need for customers to think or do anything.
Subscription services do this to an extent, such as a weekly food box delivery - you just have to remember to alert them when you are on holiday, like a traditional milkman or paperboy.
But imagine if your Gousto box knew you were having guests over next weekend, so it automatically suggested extra meals, or threw in steaks because it knows it’s date night on Friday. The technology to do this would be quite simple, and the customer would just have to give the company access to a cloud-based calendar.
The Internet of Things is all about connecting things, people and ecosystems. Going back to the world of smart devices, if we want that utopian smart fridge to automatically replenish our weekly groceries, or our printer to re-order ink, those white goods and appliances need to have existing relationships with retailers. This is why some people thought Amazon might launch its own Amazon Fresh fridge. But, no, Amazon took it one step further with its Dash Replenishment Service (DRS). This set of APIs allows manufacturers and device makers to connect their products with Amazon’s fulfilment infrastructure. And Samsung, Whirpool and Brother are already creating products which will tell Amazon when they need replenishing.
Once other retailers start to deploy this kind of cloud-based technology, this won’t just provide convenience to the consumer, but help supermarkets monitor their inventory levels - if Tesco knew what was in your fridge, it could ensure your local shop is never out of your favourite yoghurt ever again, because it will be able to pinpoint to a high degree of accuracy when you’re about to come in and buy it. Yes creepy, but oh, so clever.
Even though the technology exists and the ecosystems are beginning to emerge, don’t expect to see this automatic replenishment technology become mainstream for a good while. Exorbitant costs aside, unlike smartphones, white goods and home appliances don’t get upgraded every 12-24 months - you’re more likely to buy a new fridge every 5-10 years. And the saddest news of all? We’re even further away from jetting around space in little bubble aerocars, although Rosie the robotic housemaid might be joining your smart home sooner, rather than later.