• United States

What consumers really want

Dec 02, 20023 mins

Early technology adopters want a hand in the kitchen more than access to company files?

What good is the connected home? That’s what the Internet Home Alliance (IHA) is charged with finding out. By conducting research and field trials, the IHA is trying to help its members – retailers such as Sears and Best Buy, technology powerhouses like IBM and Panasonic – build products and services consumers will actually pay for, ideally, on a recurring monthly basis, forever.

It’s proven to be a tough job. Take the results of the IHA’s latest research report, due to be published in mid-December, “U.S. Connected Home Products and Services.” Zanthus, the consulting firm in Portland, Ore., used by IHA, developed three connected-home product concepts, then asked consumers to gauge their appeal. The first, called “Mealtime,” consists of a “single, coordinated interface” that controls kitchen appliances (refrigerator, oven) to somehow help prepare a meal from start to finish that saves the preparer considerable time and effort.

The second, “Family Communications,” consists of a network of cell phones that includes features such as one-button family calling, instant messaging, GPS, e911, emergency call overrides and games. (Note, many of these features are available in today’s calling plans and don’t require a connected home infrastructure.) The third, called “Home-Office-in-a-Box,” is simply a broadband modem with VPN capability, perhaps integrated, so workers can securely access the company network. Funny, I thought we had these already.

Conducted in the first half of the year, Zanthus’ research consisted of phone interviews with 300 “likely adopters” and 150 “mass-market consumer” households. In addition, it conducted a Web survey of 354 additional likely adopters.

Of the three product concepts, the mealtime application was found “very appealing” by 33% of households surveyed; family communications by 30%; and office-in-a-box by 31%. (The report says these figures translate into 15%, 14% and 11% of U.S. households, respectively.) Mealtime appealed to consumers over 35, and office-in-a-box appealed to the 18-to-34-year-old crowd. In a statement, IHA Chairman Bill Kenney says the difference in appeal between mealtime and office (2% among respondents; 4% among U.S. households) “goes a long way in explaining why [the connected home market] has yet “to achieve considerable traction.”

Instead of creating entertainment and work applications, vendors just need to build products that get us out of the kitchen so we can spend more time with our families. How simple! But wait, first I’ll need to buy all new Sears Kenmore-Elite appliances, right? The washing machine I inherited with my house must be 25 years old in all its avocado-green glory and runs fine. New stoves, traditional (not networked) ones, run in the $400 to $2,000 range. You’re going to have to give me a very good reason to upgrade. In fact, if you telework, you can just head downstairs at 4 p.m. and pop something in the oven like I do. Or, gasp, use a crockpot.

Then again, you could also argue the difference in appeal among these prototype applications is insignificant, that consumers are equally drawn one way or another to all three. While consumer interest is encouraging, still no single application has emerged as a killer app, regardless of how the IHA presents the findings of this report. There’s nothing scarier to big-name vendors than the notion that the killer app hasn’t been thought up yet.