Coca-Cola is about to light the rocket beneath a project that may, with luck, slightly reinvent the brand for the 21st Century: It's ready to take its amazing Freestyle drinks makers mainstream, with 104 user-controlled flavors.
We've mentioned the Coke Freestyle device several times before—it's hard not to as it's so innovative, and involves cooperation from some seriously big names in design (Pininfarina and Dean Kamen to name but two.) The device is essentially a ground-up reinvention of the decades-old free-standing drinks dispenser, with its crates of flavor syrup, chilling equipment and water supply, ready to spew out two or three varieties of cold carbonated drinks. Unlike these old systems, which have more in common with the kind of complex plumbing you'd expect aboard a 1940's submarine, Freestyle's electronic systems have a design that may have fitted aboard Captain Picard's USS Enterprise, right down to the colorful touchscreen interface. Inside it has a flavor-dispensing system inspired by medical use of inkjet technology, with huge dexterity in adding flavors to the outgoing drinks, and even no need for taste-diluting ice as it can super-chill the beverage before delivery if that's how you want it.
It's such an innovation that Coke has been field-testing a handful of the devices in the U.S. for several months, and they've encountered some of the same difficulties that any such paradigm-shifting devices face. For example, as the Wall Street Journal notes, in some stores users had no idea what they would do with the device, and faced with such a bewildering array of choices that they had to get their kids to help program the machine.
But ultimately the thinking behind Freestyle is proving correct. You may suspect that users wouldn't embrace a machine that can deliver 104 different flavors and stick to the old traditional ones (with the benefit of fast, low-effort single-button delivery). But Coke found the people were experimenting with the flavors so much that they kept pouring away "taster" drinks they'd made down the overspill chute, resulting in spillage problems. This is exactly the purpose of field-testing, of course, and the Freestyle now has a redesigned over-spill system that can accommodate this extra fluid as well as a fan to melt discarded ice-cubes.
500 revamped Freesyle machines are to be shipped out across the U.S. this month, as the next stage in Coke's experiment. It's a slow roll-out, as Coke's being careful to ensure there are trained technicians available nearby in case of problems—but ultimately the company is hoping to reinvent the market (which is huge—Coke alone has over half a million old-style drinks fountains in the U.S.). When it does make this move, I hope that the drinks giant also tweaks one technological aspect of the public dispensers that's been most irritating for years: Making sure the damn things correctly accept your coins more than 50% of the time, and don't just mysteriously swallow them into their electronic guts, before forgetting to actually deliver your drink.