Rant: The Internet Fridge Fallacy

It was 1999 in Nice, France. Walking the Promenade des Anglais, a row of mixed-sized palm trees huddled between the carriageways like a family craning above the traffic to get a glimpse of the sea, while I headed towards the old town, the Vielle Ville, to find a France ’98 World Cup replica football shirt. The morning April air was cool but not enough to cleanse my hangover or the mystifying memory of meeting my first internet fridge.

I had attended a Microsoft partner event at the Acropolis Palais des Congrès on the previous day. Microsoft was unveiling its latest Office suite to corporate customers and resellers. It wasn’t that exciting to be honest but ICL (a large British IT firm that was eventually bought by Fujitsu in 2002) was causing a bit of a stir. Rumour had it that the company was demonstrating a fridge full of beer that was connected to the internet.

My initial reaction was “why?” but then it became clear. The Electrolux fridge with built-in ICL PC apparently running Office 2000 could, in theory at least, enable its users to send email via Outlook, browse web sites and scan bar codes to create Tesco shopping lists. The fridge would then connect over Explorer 5 (!) and order the goods. The trouble was that it wasn’t connected, couldn’t really be demoed, couldn’t be bought (there were only three in the world) and in fact only existed to attract interest at events.

So the internet fridge was nothing more than a marketing tool. Has it changed?

I met my next internet fridge in 2002 in the Orange House – an old farm house located in the middle of a business park in Hatfield (what used to be British Aerospace). This living ‘house of the future’ laboratory was set up by mobile operator Orange. Families lived in the house over a period of time and were observed via fitted Big Brother-style cameras. After its initial phase, Orange made a few changes, responding to the living patterns of its guinea-pig families. Out went retina scanner door locks, an internet-enabled washing machine and yes an internet fridge.

"People don't change," said Jon Carter from Orange who was project manager for the house. "The philosophy is that if it works, don't fix it. People won't pay money to web-enable a coffee maker, for example. Why should they?"

Good point. So why is the internet fridge meme still with us, trying desperately to catch our attention and hard-earned currency? What can we possibly gain from connecting our fridges to the internet? Why is it so important that the fridge can scan our food stuff and cold drinks and order it automatically from a preferred local supermarket without us having to lift a finger? Is this just an upper middle-class solution to a non-existent problem?

Samsung doesn’t seem to think so and neither does LG. Both companies are consistently showcasing these things. Perhaps it’s a Korean thing? To cap it all we have the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT). This tends to get analysts and vendors in a flutter and there appears to be a certain amount of ‘bandwagoning’ going on. While some IoT, er, things, make perfect sense (heating, for example) the fridge does not, and yet it is still part of the IoT rhetoric as if it’s somehow real and essential.

In January, security company Proofpoint’s amazing bit of PR claimed to have discovered a cyber-attacked fridge that was spamming. It turned out to be a bit of questionable research but it may have done us a big favour. There’s usually nothing like a bit of fear and doubt to cut an idea dead on the spot. But that was in January. LG launched a new range in May. Even if the idea is just to have a screen in the kitchen it seems out of date in this age of increased tablet penetration.

I just don’t get it. Practically it doesn’t seem possible – unless there is standardisation in packaging with embedded RFID (or similar) wireless chips and then it just seems unnecessary. Open the door. Take a look. Surely the old way is still the best way?


Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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