As I prepare to go to Las Vegas in January, where I’ll attend the Consumer Electronics Show and report on the latest health & fitness products, I’ve been thinking about what sort of products to expect, especially since technology is now being embedded in all sorts of devices, including some that make no sense. That brings me to today’s article.
Rapid advancements in computer, networking and storage technology enable new features at lower cost each year, making older products seem obsolete more quickly than ever before, and one example of that is in household appliances like the refrigerator. But do you really need the latest features if what you have works just fine? Do you really need that $9,000 refrigerator with its built-in, color touch-screen and wireless Internet access? What does it do to justify that cost? And what lessons can be applied to health care? The refrigerator is often a centerpiece of family communication, with notes, photos, appointments, and phone numbers held there with magnets; and now several companies have given the fridge an even more prominent role. Their high-end models have built-in screens that support computer applications.
- The precious photos are replaced by an electronic photo album with even more memories put to music with animated transitions.
- A calendar app replaces stickies with appointments, and a Notepad app replaces the many paper notes.
- Music, Internet Radio, and Television help keep cook content in their work, and a Library of Recipes inspires new creations.
All of this and more is available without the clutter or the magnets, but at a high price that includes rapid obsolescence. You see, computer and screen technology evolves much more rapidly than white-goods appliances, and consumers don’t like it when the electronic technology becomes obsolete in just a year or two while the appliance itself lasts for 15-20 years. The proprietary designs of smart appliances limit the number of apps that are available, because third party designers develop for mainstream platforms. And possibly worse is that sometimes (most of the time) we just don’t want to stand at the fridge to do things. That’s why I’ve always argued that the touch screen should be removable. So rather than built it into the fridge, adding costs and early obsolescence, just find a way to add an existing tablet to the fridge. The image on the left shows my own refrigerator, with all of the photos and magnets still there, but with an Apple iPad hanging from a clothes hanger. It’s not pretty, but it works and is free. But now several companies offer iPad mounting kits that let you add Smart Fridge functionality for less than $40, using your own iPad. The tablet device can be taken down and used at the kitchen table, on the sofa, or anywhere you like, not just on the fridge. And because the iPad has become the most popular platform for developers — more than half a million apps available — your $40 smart fridge is smarter than the $4,000 model. You should be able to mount Android tablets the same way, but fewer mounting kits are available, because device sizes vary widely.
Lessons for Your Car
You can apply the same lessons to your car and avoid buying expensive options when better functionality comes with your smartphone or tablet. Two examples are GPS navigation and music. My 7-year-old Infinity has a turn-by-turn GPS navigation system that I haven’t used in years, because it never shows the latest maps and has no way to show traffic conditions. Instead I use my iPhone and can use it in any car I drive, with the same familiar interface.
Music is similar. The car has a descent stereo system, but the CD player no longer works, leaving me with only AM/FM radio and whatever’s playing on my three favorite stations, or whatever station I find when traveling outside of Austin. For long trips, we use my iPhone to play music, podcasts or downloaded audio books, and we could also play Internet Radio through services like Pandora, but the sound quality isn’t great without headphones. The car doesn’t have a headphone jack or Bluetooth wireless connection, so we can’t use the car’s great amplifier and speakers <sigh>. So, we plug in a little portable speaker that’s good enough. But in my next car, I’ll be sure it has a way to plug in my smartphone or tablet, and I won’t pay for functionality that’s already included in my own device.
Just as with the $9,000 refrigerator, where the manufacturer developed its own apps, proprietary designs pose similar disadvantages for medical devices, but sometimes there’s no other choice. Early on, before markets develop, there are no established standards, and many products are designed around proprietary hardware and software platforms that force manufacturers to do most of the development work themselves. Such was the case with the medical tablets by Intel-GE Care Innovations, Waldo Health, and GrandCare Systems. Their proprietary designs increase product costs, minimize third-party app development, and limit market penetration. I expect that if they were to start over from scratch that they’d instead build apps for the Apple iPad or Android-based tablets and sell services to people using the device that they already have, rather than selling them a new device just to access the service.
Apple established the smartphone and table markets with its iPhone and iPad, and they quickly became the defacto standard for product developers, due largely to the company’s market dominance, standardized program interfaces within its iOS operating system, and standard distribution channel through the Apple Store. Apple’s primary challenger is Goodle’s Android operating system, which is designed as an open standard that can, with minor modifications, run on a variety of hardware platforms from different manufacturers. Both of these standards have attracted an army of developers, and the pace of tech innovation in supported sensor technologies and health & wellness apps is truly impressive, far more so than anything possible with proprietary systems. This is why Modern Health Talk continues to promote standard platforms, whether for medical devices, or refrigerators. And it’s why we encourage designers to develop for the standard products that have become so ubiquitous in the market. Don’t buy specialized medical devices if you can get an app or attachment for the smartphone or tablet you already have.