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The bedroom computer

Convergence is not just welding two things together.

I decided to risk getting online postings of this column arbitrarily blocked by most Internet filtering software in an attempt to take discussions of convergence where they may best belong: into the bedroom.

Net-enabled appliances currently exist in an enticing, but not quite lucrative, middle ground: They are not a technical challenge, but the level of demand for them has not been established. One reason why Net-connected appliances have not yet emerged may be that so much attention has been focused in the kitchen.

Two of the biggest makers of consumer electronics, General Electric and Sunbeam, have each created prototypes of Net refrigerators (and, in Sunbeam’s case, a connected coffee maker). The benefits of adding a communications link to a refrigerator include the ability to look up recipes and buy groceries via a touchscreen-equipped Web browser, or to access the appliance remotely so you can control its thermostat while traveling or at work.

However, anyone with enough gadget lust to even consider buying a major appliance with a built-in modem already owns a personal computer, which is actually an excellent means of browsing the Web for recipes or groceries. As for remote thermostat changes, I have adjusted the temperature controls of my refrigerator twice since I bought it.

It’s hard to imagine any market research group telling GE that people feel the urge to regularly fiddle with their refrigerators’ temperature, or convincing Sunbeam engineers that browsing the Web from a PC is less effective than doing so from an appliance’s door. I fear these companies gravitate toward large appliances because they are relatively expensive, presuming that the added cost of communications technology might be overlooked by consumers already prepared to spend a lot.

Useful technology convergence has to be more than just welding two devices together. In many of its forms, convergence is a powerful and important idea, but too many of those forms are for-the-heck-of-it technology welds rather than innovation that fulfills a legitimate desire.

Notice I used the word desire, not need. Too often, people who try to design new products get hung up on the myth that they must fulfill a need–with the implication that mere frivolities have no market appeal. In fact, unavoidable needs are pretty few, and while they might explain the financial success of grocery-store chains and hospitals, a million successful products, from Palm Pilots to aluminum scooters, have nothing to do with necessity.

Speaking of needs and desires, let’s get back to the bedroom. The only electronic device in most bedrooms is an alarm clock. Yet there are a couple of reasons why this is exactly where appliance convergence should begin:

1) Actually, replacing a $10 alarm clock with a $100 Net-enabled alarm clock is not ludicrous. What was the first Palm Pilot but an expensive replacement for a paper planner? What were the early spreadsheets but expensive replacements for a written ledger and adding machine? Added cost does not deter desiring added functionality.

2) We have three bedroom alarm clocks: One receives information from a wireless temperature/humidity sensor in our backyard, another listens for local weather alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the third has a radio receiver to set itself according to the atomic clocks operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. OK, maybe I’m a gadget freak, but all three of these provide value, if not fulfillment of needs. In fact, the cost of tabletop space for three devices bothers me more than their combined purchase price.

All three of these functions could be accessed via the Internet–and a bedroom clock could be configured to do it automatically. A Net-enabled clock for the bedroom could incorporate other information references (a quick stock ticker or national news headlines), or tune in Internet radio stations. Unlike a refrigerator, the bedroom appliance would have good reason to be connected to the Internet; it would have more value, with the ability to automatically receive regularly updated information, than an appliance with a general-purpose browser interface welded to it.

The bedroom computer may never be created, but its hypothetical design serves as a lesson in the real value of convergence. Sometimes, this much-used term means nothing more than combining two products, and that has dubious value. Convergence doesn’t have to fill needs, but to be marketable, it must provide value.

Contributing Editor Joe Rudich [email protected] is a network administrator with the St. Paul Companies in St. Paul, Minn.

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