Is Amazon working on a refrigerator?

Maybe.

Recent patent applications suggest the company is researching advanced refrigerator technology around spoilage detection while they also expand efforts to help you order groceries and have them delivered inside your home. Taken together with their investment in smart home tech and growing interest in the kitchen, one scenario could have the company creating a smart fridge.

Skeptical? You should be. It probably won’t happen. But there are signals it is at least a remote possibility, so let’s analyze them and speculate about the possibility of an Amazon Smart Fridge.

First the patent applications.

Amazon Files Fridge Patents

In September, Amazon filed two related patent applications that centered around spoiled food detection in refrigerators.  The first patent application, filed on September 14th of this year, is called “Image-Based Spoilage Sensing Refrigerator” and centers around utilizing internal cameras to detect spoiled food. The system would use both infrared and visible spectrum cameras to detect spoilage of food and then send an alert to a mobile device.

This patent application was designed to work in concert with a scent-based sensing system defined in another patent application (also filed on September 14th) called “Scent-Based Spoilage Sensing Refrigerator” that utilizes a variety of sensors to detect gasses emitted from spoiled food and then sends an alert to a mobile device.

Here is a mockup drawing of the fridge included in both of the patent applications that show where gas-based spoilage sensors would be placed in the fridge:

Both patent applications go into a lot of detail about how exactly the systems would work, but the essence of these concepts is that Amazon wants to put digital eyes and a nose into your refrigerator to automatically detect when food is spoiled and let you know.

As with any patent applications, you need to take them with a grain of salt. Amazon files a whole lot of patents these days and more often these do not turn into granted patents. But the very fact Amazon is researching spoilage detection is interesting in itself, even if it’s not enough.

Amazon Investment in Kitchen Commerce

For the last few years, Amazon has invested in kitchen replenishment and ordering platforms. First, there’s Amazon Dash Replenishment Service, the integrated automated ordering system that today is largely about replenishing non-spoilables like coffee filters or printer ink. However, there’s no reason why the same technology couldn’t work in a fridge.

Then there’s the Amazon Echo and Alexa. Over half of all Amazon Echos are ending up in the kitchen, and Amazon continues to build out the capabilities of their Alexa-powered voice assistants to act as virtual grocery shoppers.

We’ve also seen Amazon continuing to invest in their own mobile app to enable new commerce possibilities. Just this week the company announced it had added augmented reality capabilities to its mobile app. One could easily imagine the mobile app getting alerts from a smart fridge to tee up a new set of groceries.

Amazon’s Recipe-Driven Commerce Patent

Amazon’s fridge patent applications are no doubt intriguing, but things get even more interesting when considering Amazon IP such as its patent for recipe-driven commerce. Amazon was issued a patent in 2015 to enable for recipe-driven commerce that breaks down a recipe and inserts ingredients into a virtual shopping cart.

Here’s an image from the patent filing showing a recipe with a commerce/shopping cart component:

The patent application was originally filed in 2011, which shows you how long Amazon has been thinking about food and automated ordering.

Amazon Is Investing in Unattended Delivery

Last week, Amazon revealed Amazon Key, a new initiative centered around unattended delivery. The idea here is an Amazon delivery person would be able to enter your home to deliver a product while you aren’t there. The system utilizes an Amazon smart video doorbell and works with smart lock partners to enable access.

While Amazon Key could be used for pretty much anything Amazon delivers, unattended delivery makes lots of sense for groceries given fresh food needs to be put into a fridge at some point. Of course, an Amazon fridge isn’t necessary to make this all happen, but as long as Amazon is moving down the path of automated ordering, it could be one of many potential scenarios.

Amazon’s Partnership With Kenmore

A couple of months ago, Kenmore made news by announcing it would start selling its appliances via Amazon. It was a big deal since this was the first time in the brand’s century-plus history that it would sell outside of a Sears’ sales channel.

As I wrote here, the deal was a big win for Amazon, while Sears/Kenmore will also benefit from Amazon’s e-commerce capabilities. At the same time, Sears continues to struggle and, long-term, this deal could the first step towards new business models where Kenmore works with other players to help develop partner products. Who’s to say that at some point Amazon doesn’t consider working with Kenmore to make a refrigerator or – as they did with Whole Foods – just buy the company?

Amazon Loves Food

This one might seem obvious, but Amazon loves the food business. If the surprising acquisition of Whole Foods wasn’t enough to convince you, certainly their decade-long investment in grocery delivery, experimentation with new store formats, their drive-through pick up concept, Fresh subscriptions and various other initiatives are signs of how excited Amazon is about the food market. And why not? They know along with Walmart that food is the biggest portion of consumer wallet spend outside of housing and transportation (roughly 13% of consumer household budgets go towards food).

Much how Amazon eventually invested in hardware for entertainment because they saw a huge opportunity for new business models as the living room became digitized, who’s to say they won’t think the same thing about food as the kitchen goes through the same digital transformation?

The Fridge Is The Heart Of The Kitchen

In some ways, one could argue the fridge is the heart of the kitchen. Samsung certainly thinks so, doubling down on a strategy around their Family Hub refrigerator this year and likely continuing to bet on the smart fridge. Rumors have been floating for the last couple years that Amazon was making a kitchen computer – which eventually turned into was the Echo Show – but who’s to say Amazon wouldn’t just consider moving the technology for the Show into the fridge itself alongside all the other tech they are have developed for the kitchen?

All The Reasons They Won’t Make a Fridge

As I said, there are lots of reasons not to make a fridge. One is the company usually invests in smaller, low-cost hardware products in new categories. Another is there’s a good chance that if Amazon wanted inside our fridge, they would simply consider making a retrofit solution similar to the Smarter fridge cam.  And if they wanted to make a home storage device, why not just make a front-door locker system, something akin to an Amazon locker for the front door?

But still…

Conclusion: Gene Munster, My Apologies

The Amazon fridge question reminds me of a few years ago when folks speculated whether Apple would make a TV. One analyst in particular, Gene Munster, seemed to bet his whole career on the idea before eventually admitting he’d been wrong.

Part of the reason Munster speculated for years about an Apple TV was there were lots of signals.  Patent filings, investment in digital entertainment platforms and the recurring pattern of Apple coming up with a new hero consumer product every couple years fed into Munster’s thinking.

So, while I don’t intend to become the Gene Munster of the Amazon fridge and wage a multiyear speculation battle about why its the right thing to do, I figured I’d at least play Munster for a day and ask the question: will Amazon make a smart fridge?

Probably not.

Buy maybe.

1 COMMENT

  1. I wouldn’t rule it out.

    Amazon has shown they’re willing to try disrupting existing categories (books, tv, phones). There’s no reason the couldn’t go big.

    The lynchpin could be their relationship with Kenmore. If Kenmore is in bed with Amazon, Sear’s hunger for operating cash could drive them to sell part or whole. The GE relationship complicates things a bit, but not a dealbreaker.

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