Recent Trends in Technology-Driven Companies -Part 7-
By Hajime Yamada (GLOCOM)
According to Nihon Keizai Shinbun, Toshiba Corporation recently developed the world's first Net-connecting home appliances that correspond with next-generation Internet technology. Toshiba reportedly aims to market them in 2003.
The summary of the article is as follows:
Net electric appliances are home appliances such as refrigerators or microwave ovens connected to the Internet in order to enable remote control through mobile phones or personal computers. Toshiba, having completed technological development including infrastructure, is planning to quickly put these Net appliances to practical use, to rank them in a strategic project characterizing home appliances, and to grow them as a new business.
Toshiba expects the Net appliance-related market, including infrastructure, to be worth around ten trillion yen at a maximum, and makes it a policy to grow this field as the mainstay of its home appliance business. Toshiba's sales of washing machines and refrigerators were a little over 700 billion yen in fiscal year 2000 (consolidated accounts), which has remained at more or less the same level for several years. Toshiba intends to put this business on track and to grow it as a new source of income.
These Net appliances use "IPv6," a next-generation Internet technology, which has already completed developing protocols to control the appliances. Toshiba intends to urge other manufacturers to introduce this technology as the business standard.
Other than home appliances such as refrigerators or microwave ovens, the plan includes all required equipment to correspond with IPv6 in order to construct the network system, including routers to contact the Internet at home, notebook computers to control the appliances from wherever you are, and outside servers to manage the related data.
You can check the temperature, images inside your refrigerator, its electricity consumption and so on by means of a personal computer or a PDA (personal digital assistant) when you are away. You will be able to switch on or off the appliances remotely through the Internet. Also, information will be distributed from the server to each appliance, and you can easily display or control the cooking menus and area information, for example, on the monitors attached to your refrigerator or microwave oven.
By putting this technology into practical use, your refrigerator would be able to automatically make orders to vendors for the goods that are out of stock. If your refrigerator is furnished with a camera you can use it to check on your family members or to control security.
Some electric appliance manufacturers are moving towards the realization of home appliances that enable direct interaction of information by connecting with the Internet. The government assists the movement by granting funds for the development of these products as well. However, I wonder if this is a correct move.
First, we are not sure how much need exists for confirming the contents of refrigerators when we are away from home. No consumer has expressed anticipation for such functions, according to the newspaper report. Rather, consumers seem to be puzzled. It is a question, therefore, whether the big market Toshiba expects will open up.
Second, there is a great risk if the appliances are constantly connected to the Internet. As network crimes tend to be increasing, I wonder whether these electric products are safe from such attacks. In order to access a refrigerator from a distance, passwords will be used for certification. However, not very many consumers would seriously manage them. When easily accessible numbers such as birthday dates or telephone numbers are used by a majority of consumers, it is apparent that the network criminals would immediately start attacking. Not everybody, if any, would inspect the contents of the refrigerator more than five minutes a day while he or she is away from home. It would mean to take a great risk by constantly connecting to the Internet for this purpose.
Third, there still remain questions about the utilization of IPv6. Presently, each computer in your office, for example, is assigned its address according to IPv4 rules. From such computers you cannot view household equipment with IPv6, even though both are connected to the Internet. A refrigerator with an address per IPv6 system will allow connection only from controllers with IPv6. Therefore, a consumer who purchases such a home appliance will also have to buy an associating controller. This increase of economic burden will make it difficult to sell Net-connectable refrigerators.
Internet connectable appliances seem to have emerged as a part of the IPv6 popularization strategy. If many appliances are constantly connected, IPv4 will run short of addresses. Toshiba's logic is to spread IPv6 instead of IPv4 to settle this issue. However, there are a lot of problems and the situation does not seem to be progressing as Toshiba calculates. It will be necessary to reconsider whether such appliances are truly useful to activate the home appliance market after slow sales growth.