"We’re a little bit of a hammer looking for a nail right now," Chris Quatrochi, Whirlpool's global director of user experience and connectivity, said last week at a conference hosted by tech blog Gigaom. The buyers of web-connected washers, more than a year after launch, are still "not at all widespread," he said. "Trying to understand exactly the value proposition that you provide to the consumer," he said, "has been a little bit of a challenge."
It's a big concession from one of the most notable champions of the buzzy "Internet of Things," in which even our humblest household devices gain web-enabled powers of their own. At a consumer electronics expo in January, Whirlpool said its "kitchen of 2020" would be piled high with not-exactly-necessary whirligigs: stove-tops that display the weather, Facebook photos and Pinterest recipes; music-playing refrigerators; oven burners that flame up via voice command.
In the kitchen of 2014, though? No one seems to be storming down the doors for a web-connected home laundromat.
Whirlpool, the world's largest appliance maker and builder of nearly 2 million washers and dryers in North America every year, would not share sales numbers for its “smart” appliances. But its companion iPhone app, WashSquad, hasn't exactly blown anyone away. The app, which also lets users assign laundry chores to family members and gives tips on erasing stains, has in the last year been reviewed only 21 times. It peaked at no. 243 in the iOS store's "Lifestyle" category late last year, fell below 1,500th in January and hasn't resurfaced ever since, according to data from App Annie, an app-market research firm.
Few expected "smart" machines would fly off the shelves. They're expensive, and Americans don't typically replace their washers and dryers all that often. But analysts say the problem is bigger than that. Today's smartest washer and dryer set won't fold your clothes, erase wrinkles or stop you from mixing reds and whites. It won't even move a load from one machine to the other. So what's the point? Or, as Digital Trends blogger John Sciacca put it: "Have we gotten so pathetically lame that you need to be notified by an email that your laundry is done?"
The machines could get smarter over time. In less than 10 years, said Whirlpool executive Quatrochi, your washer and dryer will be able to prod you about chores ("Did you want to add this to your laundry list?") while also tapping into your calendar to remind you how late you are. But there are those who, in a world rampant with distractions, still admire appliances' blessed simplicity. “Will I not be able to do my laundry on a Friday night," Gigaom executive editor Tom Krazit said, "if I don’t download this software update first?”
Whirlpool said Tuesday its third-quarter sales worldwide had risen 2 percent, to $4.8 billion. (Executives said nothing about "smart" appliances in a conference call with analysts.)
Connecting the web with the creature comforts of domestic life and suburbia remains one of the biggest intrigues for consumer giants wanting to jump on the next big thing. Google said in January it would pay $3.2 billion to buy Nest Labs, the maker of "smart" thermostats and smoke detectors. New lines of "smart" appliances, from lawn sprinklers to dishwashers, have blossomed in the months since.
But even their biggest supporters see how far they still have to grow before they win over the mainstream. "If I could actually [build] a connected solution that folded the clothes," Quatrochi said, "we could all retire."