Smart Refrigerators: The Value Proposition Isn't Apparent Yet Getty Images

Smart Refrigerators: The Value Proposition Isn't Apparent Yet

The kitchen of the future will presumably be collecting and broadcasting a lot of actionable data, and Microsoft wants in on the action. It's collaborating with appliance maker Liebherr to build an image processing system inside refrigerators. Using Microsoft's Computational Network Toolkit, Liebherr built out a camera-and-software system that can learn to identify new jars, bottles and containers based on a pre-existing image library and some experience-based learning.

The idea here is that your fridge will be able to keep an inventory of its contents, which you'll then use to update your grocery list -- a list that, of course, lives in a proprietary app on your phone.

This fridge is but one in a growing list of appliances that will be collecting data about what you're consuming and how often you're consuming it. And refrigerators that track what you eat are only the latest entrant in the market of buying and selling data on consumers' food habits -- grocery chains' "loyalty" reward programs have been doing it for years, and there's a reason data-analysis giants Amazon and Google have been beavering away at the grocery-delivery business for years. If you can provide solid data on how people shop, you can tweak your inventory accordingly and provide all sorts of prompts that presumably nudge people to open their wallets when opportunity just falls into their laps.

The one thing a smart fridge does for the user is automate what plenty of people do already: Stare at the contents of the fridge and start making a list of what they need from the grocery store. But any user should also consider what the smart fridge does for other parties: It turns the fridge buyer into a raw resource, and that resource is "someone who provides lots of data for free."

Even better, that resource provides data across multiple streams: In order to manage inventory and groceries, these fridges come with their own apps, so users have to chuck whatever grocery-managing system they had and commit to a specific app. The software can monitor user behavior -- how does a user respond to alerts? How does a user respond to suggested items to add to lists? -- while the fridge monitors actual rate of product consumption over time.

You are going to be a veritable gold mine of free data for the merchant who also charged you a few thousand dollars for an appliance.

I don't know about you all, but if I'm going to be the product here, shouldn't I get a cut of the profits? At this point, smart fridges will cost a consumer thousands of dollars -- the Samsung Family Hub refrigerator is going for $6000 -- and then create a second revenue stream via data generation and sales. What an elegant way to keep wringing money out of a customer base.

If I'm going to create a continuous stream of data that's repackaged and sold to companies that will then try to manipulate me into spending more money (or to insurance companies that will hike up my premiums if they decide I'm buying heavy cream too often), what's in it for me? 

And that's the question that smart fridges have yet to answer: What is their value proposition for consumers? Is the problem that they solve actually worth the price of the appliance, the app lock-in and the perpetual flow of data you can neither control nor monetize for yourself?

Right now, a dumb fridge, a pad of paper and a family member peering inside the appliance and calling, "Don't forget thousand island dressing!" seems like a better value. The first fridge that makes their data-collection and data-sales activities absolutely transparent -- or cuts me in on the action -- might make me reconsider.

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