As we continue our end of year wrap-up series, we wanted to drive into some smart kitchen appliance categories to see what happened (or didn’t happen) to the category as a whole and make some predictions for what’s on the horizon for 2017.

Hey Alexa, what’s in my fridge?

If there was a darling of connected tech in 2016, the Amazon Echo was it. Voice control was barely a whisper at CES last year and by September, if you didn’t have voice control baked into your smart home or entertainment device (or at least have it on your product roadmap), you were irrelevant. And Alexa fit right into the kitchen, with hands-free control in the one room if the house you don’t want to be touching your smartphone.

Voice control makes more sense for devices that do stuff – telling Alexa to pre-heat the oven is a pretty useful skill. So, the Amazon Echo compatibility for fridges is a shorter list, but worth a look:

  • GE – GE launched their Geneva skill to control a range of GE Wi-Fi appliances, including fridges but also ovens and washing machines. For fridges, Alexa can control the temperature, turn the icemaker on or off, prep hot water for coffee or tea, or just give you a status on how the fridge is doing.
  • The Samsung Family Hub connects to Amazon Echo and you can use Alexa to control all the things on the Hub’s OS like Pandora but you can also order groceries through the Groceries by Mastercard app, mirroring Amazon’s own ordering services available through voice.

Speaking of Samsung…

The fridge as the home hub

The concept of the connected fridge isn’t a new one, with appliance makers adding Wi-Fi connectivity to their products for the last several years. One of the companies on the early smart fridge bandwagon was Samsung, who began talking about an internet refrigerator back in 2001. Later during that decade, Samsung was demoing smart fridges at CES; the fridge displayed a small-ish touch screen with basic connected functionality.

Then came the Samsung Family Hub. A beast of a machine (in both size and price), this fridge first debuted last year at CES 2016 with its official launch in May. With its giant 1080p touchscreen on the front, it looked at first glance, like a version of their other Wi-Fi connected fridges on steroids. But the Family Hub actually packs some interesting features that while might seem frivolous at the outset, actually hint at some larger tech trends for fridges and other appliances in the future.

The giant touchscreen features interesting apps like the Groceries by Mastercard app which allows you to order food from FreshDirect and ShopRite, right from your fridge. The fridge also gives users the ability to photo tag their items to keep track of what’s there.

The other future-facing features are the cameras placed in the fridge’s doors to let you see what’s inside when the doors are closed. Why would we want to do that? Well to check when you’re at the grocery store to see what you’re out of, for one. You can also look inside the fridge from the touchscreen on the front, negating the need to open the doors. LG debuted similar functionality at CES 2016, with theirs using a “knocking” feature and a clear window on the front of the fridge to let someone knock, illuminate the interior lights and see what’s in the fridge without opening the door.

But ordering groceries from your fridge’s touchscreen and being able to see what’s inside from your phone in a supermarket isn’t really the compelling story here. The story is what Samsung (and others) haven’t yet put inside this device – and what will make refrigerators way smarter in the future.

The fridge as a part of the kitchen’s OS ecosystem

Moving from connectivity and entertainment to a true smart appliance, the fridge of the future might actually have a database of knowledge and machine learning behind it that will allow it to know things about your food. Startups like Innit are pioneering a new category using food data along with image recognition software to allow an appliance like a refrigerator to recognize food without any user inputs and generate useful information from that. Information like a recipe that could be made with the contents left in the fridge on the day before shopping day would help prevent food waste and also give users helpful ideas for dinner.

The technology concept driving Innit is what’s missing from the Samsung Family Hub and every other Wi-Fi connected fridge. Cameras and connectivity are great, but when something requires the user to constantly input and maintain a database in order to fully deliver on its usefulness, it falls apart. Consumers don’t want another thing to have to update, they want tech that makes things easier.

Innit’s partnership with appliance giant Whirlpool is proof that manufacturers are recognizing the shortcomings of current technology. And the opportunity in the kitchen isn’t going unnoticed; Microsoft announced in a blog post in early September it too is planning to build a fridge with a connected, machine learning based platform. Microsoft will collaborate with Liebherr’s appliance division to create a platform that uses computer-based deep learning algorithms with imaging software to recognize food that’s placed inside a refrigerator.

Unique to Microsoft is the modularity they’re building into every “SmartDevice ready” appliance, theoretically making any refrigerator purchased today easily upgradable in the future. Products like the Samsung Family Hub fridge have been criticized for offering a host of features without any clear answers on how the device will keep pace with future innovation and developments. With the price tags on connected appliances still one to three times what consumers pay for their dumb counterparts, future-proofing these products seems critical to their long-term success. This coupled with the longer buying cycles of white goods mean appliance manufacturers might start thinking about their revenue streams and what kind of role that plays, whether that’s through a grocery replenishment partnership or technology upgrades that offer new functionality.

Appliance-As-A-Service (AAAS….?) 

Mike Wolf wrote a post here at The Spoon and an even larger analysis at the NextMarket blog on the concept of paying monthly fees to obtain a consumer good, or what’s known as the “X as a service” model. Much of the consumer market is trending towards a service or subscription model, from streaming videos to clothing and furniture. Could kitchen appliances follow suit?

Bad acronym aside, it’s not completely crazy. We’re finally seeing appliances evolve to provide significant value beyond the existing reactive position they’ve held in the kitchen for the last fifty or sixty years. There’s machine learning and artificial intelligence set to change how we cook and how tasty and well-prepared the food we sit down to eat will be along with connectivity giving us capabilities and efficiencies that might make us want to cook more with more convenience. But the current trajectory requires consumers to piece together a smart kitchen and then also keep tabs on upgrades and seek out tech support for issues they encounter. What if appliances like smart fridges could be purchased as a service, with upgrades and support and maybe other services baked in?

Though we haven’t seen any company make a serious move towards AAAS just yet, we think it’s an area to watch in 2017 and beyond. If for no other reason than it’s actually a pretty awesome acronym.

With CES 2017 just a week away, we’re sure to see more developments in the smart fridge and more broadly, smart kitchen appliance category.