Can Wi-Fi Make You a Better Cook?
A few years back, someone sent me a news release about a Wi-Fi-enabled slow cooker. I was intrigued, but I ultimately declined the offer to test it, for one simple reason: I couldn't figure out what I'd do with a Wi-Fi-enabled slow cooker that I wouldn't be able to do with a regular one. A slow cooker is a really simple piece of gear, and higher-end models already have timers that let you program them to automatically switch "cook" to "warm." Because that's the only thing I could imagine using a wired appliance to do, I gave it a pass.
Kitchen appliances with Wi-Fi capability are the sort of thing that sound really neat until you try to work out what you are actually going to do with them. Then it turns out that any feature you can imagine, such as telling it to stop cooking, is probably already well-handled with a timer.
During the International Home and Housewares Show, I had this discussion with the folks at Black & Decker, who are rolling out a couple of Wi-Fi-enabled appliances that the company thinks will have added value. One of them is a coffeepot that allows you to program your machine to start brewing at your normal wake-up time, then snooze the coffee maker if you decide to catch a few extra winks so that it won't start brewing until you actually wake up. The other was an indoor electric grill, which it hopes to have out by Christmas. It includes a temperature probe and a smartphone app that will let you choose the doneness of your meat and set the grill to deliver it, then notify you when it's done if you happen to go into a different room.
Now, neither of these features is likely to appeal to me. We have a completely non-programmable Technivorm coffee maker, as well as enough patience to wait 10 minutes for our first cup of coffee. And we cook our steaks on a propane grill or a cast-iron skillet, not an electric appliance. But these are actual features that I can see other people wanting, even if they're not for me. In the current world of Wi-Fi-enabled kitchen gadgets, that's a rarity.
The features on the grill are, to be sure, something that could mostly be replicated manually on the machine with a programming interface and an alarm. But the smartphone interface looked easier to use than small buttons on a machine face, and the ability to walk into another room without worrying that you'll fail to hear the alarm probably adds some value for users. You never know, of course, with kitchen gadgets -- some things I thought were surefire hits have died on the shelves, while the Hamilton Beach breakfast sandwich maker, which drew my most intense skepticism, appears to be both popular and beloved by its owners. But I can certainly see the Foreman grill attracting a sizable customer base, and I'll be very interested to see how it does when it finally comes out.
I'll be even more interested to see what other uses manufacturers manage to find for Wi-Fi. There have to be a lot of things that we could do with networked kitchen gadgets, if only some bright folks in the labs could figure out what -- and explain it to consumers. But I suspect this will take some time, precisely because Wi-Fi has the potential to be so transformative: Really using its capabilities may, in many cases, mean re-imagining the entire appliance. And American consumers aren't all that imaginative about their kitchens, so imagining is just the first step. Getting the things onto countertops and teaching consumers to cook differently will take even more time than inventing the next great kitchen app.
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