I want to tell you about a landmark new device. It features two cameras and a voice- and motion-controlled touch screen. It allows you to teleconference, control your smart home, and even share Instagrams. And its screen is a full 27 inches. It’s the size of an iMac!
But it’s not an iMac. It’s a new microwave from GE. Did I mention it also heats your food and features an exhaust hood?
At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), kitchen appliance manufacturers are in rare form. While the “smart refrigerator” has been around as a concept since 1991 (and a product since 1998), this year we’re seeing every single function you’d expect in a modern smartphone or PC–from giant touch screens and AI assistants–stuck inside a box that chills or cooks food.
Philips introduced a 24-inch kitchen screen with Google Assistant that specializes in recipes. GE has its iMicrowave (okay, it’s called a Kitchen Hub). Samsung, confusingly, also offers a Family “Hub,” but it’s actually a fridge with Bixby voice-controlled AI and a decent speaker system. Perhaps the biggest smart kitchen armament was announced by LG, which debuted a bunker buster smart fridge that sports a 29-inch screen running webOS with full Amazon Alexa support. AI is often advertised as the defining feature of these gargantuan machines, but they dwarf Google Home or Echo Show as absurdist spectacles. One thousand Google Home Minis must fit inside the footprint of a single LG super-fridge!
So, why is the appliance industry’s go-to game plan to throw the kitchen sink . . . at the kitchen sink? It may have something to do with our current attention economy or the fact that some of the industry’s main players also make smartphones and PCs–or the way our home appliances tend to reflect the concerns of Americans in any given era.
My first thought was that LG and Samsung–makers of smartphones, TVs, and tablets–must have something to do with this rise of LCD-infused kitchenware. Surely, these tech powerhouses must be adding touch screens to their appliances as a strategy for besting their U.S. counterparts, Whirlpool and GE. Yet Samsung has been making fridges since 1972. LG has been making kitchen appliances even longer, since the 1950s. It’s just taken the better part of five decades for both Korean companies to usurp Whirlpool and GE as the number one and two brands in total dollar sales in this space, respectively. So we can’t simply attribute all these new products to the fact that “tech” companies are making appliances.
It’s hard to know how much these bells and whistles have helped either company. It’s possible that this tablet-happy kitchen technology really has helped LG and Samsung get an edge; analysts claim that various design novelties have helped each company differentiate itself from the old guard appliance manufacturers, but brands don’t disclose the success of individual products in their lineups. (Whirlpool points to patent violations and subsidies from the Korean government as both having a factor in its own loss of market share.) It’s hard to believe that the butt of a Silicon Valley joke is really wooing middle America to spend $3,500-plus on a refrigerator just because it’s iPhone-y.
There are other ways to understand this crop of smartphone-style appliances. The kitchen has a unique place in the American home today. Americans spend more on kitchens than ever before, at a time that we’re actually cooking less than ever before. We demand granite and steel and then order GrubHub anyway.
However, the kitchen is not a new obsession for Americans. Just flip through a 1950s Popular Science to see all sorts of crazy concepts for the kitchen of the future. At the time, they were marketed to the busy housewife (though the “housewife” stereotype misses the key fact that women both had more babies and had more jobs in the 1950s than in previous decades). Technology in the kitchen was advertised as a savior for a new generation of mothers who were expected to run a household and work. Companies marketed motorized cabinetry, electronic flour dispensers, car-sized lazy Susans, and a button for every job. The same era brought us all sorts of good ideas still around today: kitchen islands, dishwashing machines, garbage disposals, and even sinks that put both the hot and cold controls on a single handle. These products promised to make Americans’ postwar lives easier, to save them precious minutes while cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and to increase the time they might spend with their families.
Today’s smart appliances do something similar but different: They ask you to spend more time at your fridge or microwave–or on your phone, controlling your fridge or microwave–following the same engagement-equals-success model that our smartphones and apps follow. These appliances are the natural evolution of an engagement-obsessed industry, where constant interaction is the whole point. “We know you’re wasting your day away on screens,” they seem to say, “so waste it away with us, here in your beautiful, way-too-expensive kitchen!” That’s why Samsung offers a video feed to see who is ringing your front door from your refrigerator. And GE has a downward-facing camera in its microwave so you’ll be able to socialize food as it cooks on your stove.
Maybe this mind-set is perfect for 2018. If we’re not cooking in that kitchen, we should be doing something in it. Why not Instagram our crushed ice cubes from an appliance that costs as much as a car?
It’s a desperate, brute-force approach to design–and it also forgets that one of the fastest-growing sectors of the entire kitchen appliance industry was birthed by an out-of-work dad rather than a multibillion dollar manufacturer. His invention is called the Instant Pot. With a skeleton crew of a company, its creator blindsided every major competitor through a unique value proposition of an automated pressure cooker: not fancy LCD screens or voice recognition systems, but saving a little time in your day, to make your family dinner, and to have time to eat with them, too.