TECH

Why Refrigerators Should Stay Forever Dumb

"Smart" fridges are becoming more common, but there are a few big problems.

Fridge, meet tablet.

Samsung on Sunday unveiled via its Korean website a new refrigerator that will connect to the Internet. It looks like someone welded a gargantuan iPad onto the front door, and it reportedly will let people access a list of their food from any smartphone, get alerts when items are expiring, listen to music via the fridge itself, turn off Internet-connected lightbulbs elsewhere in the house and more. 

There are a lot of reasons to roll your eyes at this -- and basically any smart device -- but they may not be the ones you expect. 

The biggest problem isn't the hardware -- ridiculous as it may look -- but the software. How often do you upgrade your fridge? Maybe every 13 years if you follow established guidelines. How often do apps update? Much more often than that, obviously.

If you purchase a smart device, be it a fridge or an Apple TV, you can rest assured that it will become obsolete, not necessarily because its internal parts rust or break down, but because apps stop working as intended. Take for example the YouTube app. Last year, Google stopped supporting an old version that ran on devices manufactured before 2013, like some models of Apple TV and certain Blu-ray players. Owners of the oldest devices -- which probably worked just fine otherwise -- lost the ability to use an app because Google wanted to focus on a more modern version.

Believe it or not, a similar thing has already happened on a Samsung smart fridge. In 2014, the Samsung RF4289HARS lost the ability to connect to the Google Calendar app unless users upgraded to a more recent version. You can take a second and laugh about this: People needed to update the software on their refrigerators in order to see their calendars.

Motherboard's Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai pointed out the absurdity of the situation in a post last month.

A first-generation Apple TV. You might also call it a worthless hockey puck if you're interested in using the YouTube app.
A first-generation Apple TV. You might also call it a worthless hockey puck if you're interested in using the YouTube app.

It's actually not so funny, though, when you consider how software updates are used to engineer sales. That's one way Apple gets people to buy new iPhones: A new software update rolls around, you install it on an old device; it runs slowly, you buy an upgrade. Or, you never update your device's software, your apps stop working, and you finally cave and buy a new gadget.

Perhaps worst of all, Internet-connected devices are also vulnerable to hacks. Last year, researchers found that an older model of Samsung's smart fridge put a user's Gmail information at risk.

Without putting too fine a point on it, these were never problems with VCRs or "classic" fridges. (Duh.)

The advent of Samsung's new refrigerator, which is designed to work with other Internet-connected devices in your home, could be an opportunity for reflection. True, smart fridges have been punching bags for years, but critics tend to focus on a couple of things: The fridges are expensive, and it seems ridiculous to mirror your smartphone on the same thing that keeps your yogurt frosty.

But criticizing the appliance simply because it connects to the Internet and has a screen isn't really fair. We live in a world where people wear smartwatches to avoid the inconvenience of picking their phones up. People put little devices in their pockets to keep track of how much they're walking. An experimental gizmo from last year used heart rate data to track how much people like their friends.

You could make the argument that all of this junk is dumb on the basis that no one really "needs" to quantify their life so obsessively. Humans exercised before Fitbit told them to and communicated with one another before the Apple Watch made text messages wrist-ready. That argument ignores the basic fact that people apparently want these devices. There's enough demand that a recent report from Gartner, a tech research firm, predicts that 6.4 billion Internet-connected devices will be used worldwide in 2016.

An influx of Internet-connected devices could be a really good thing. In fairness to the smart fridge, well-timed updates about food could prevent waste -- a clear benefit that does a lot to justify the device's existence. Smart cars could save people money, reduce emissions and decongest our roadways. Thermostats that talk to your phone could help you use energy responsibly. Online sensors on public garbage cans could stop dump trucks from taking needless trips.

But consumers, at least, have a lot to think about when it comes to shopping for these devices. It appears that they can't yet be confident that whatever they purchase now will even be fully functional a few years down the line. And when we're talking about appliances that cost several thousand dollars -- well, you can do the math on whether or not that makes sense.

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