There's been a blackout on consumer research that's driving some sinister behind-the-scenes development of IP appliances. Unfortunately the public at large will probably think this is all great stuff. So what's wrong with the coffeemaker you switch on during the drive home, or the refrigerator that knows you are out of Cokes and orders some, or the other idiotic notions about IP appliances promoted at Sun's rollout of Jini? And how does power-line networking figure in?
Let's start with power-line networking. Numerous schemes have been devised to turn your home power outlets into conduits for other things, including sound systems and computer networks. A good telltale sign is whether, say, the network suffers when someone turns on a blender in the kitchen. Most serious nouveau companies have gone to phone wires or even wireless.
Still, people are creeped out by the idea of plugging into the power system for anything other than power. This killed early notions that power companies could also be Internet service providers.
But the utilities are part of the whole idea. Here's how it works: You buy an IP-enabled washing machine that comes with an LCD touch screen. The machine is not linked to your home network, but to the grid network outside running through the power lines at 1Mbps. It's not a network that you rely on for much more than the occasional message sent to the washer and displayed on its screen. The washer says that Maytag has a new spin cycle for the latest cotton lingerie for Victoria's Secret. If you download the cycle, the washer asks if you'd like the new Victoria's Secret catalog. If you consent, the power company sends your address to the vendor.
You step into the laundry room the next day and the screen is flashing. Guess what? The washer tells you that by pressing Yes you can get a free box of a new soap from Acme Soapco--the best for making whiter whites. You'll receive the soap in the mail with a coupon to buy more at a discount.
The offers never end. It turns out that this works much better than the newspaper coupons. The washer even e-mails you coupons you can print out on your PC. Tektronix is already doing this for its new Phaser 840 printer, which e-mails you a note when it begins to run out of supplies. The 840 has an IP address and could just as easily send you a message via corporate headquarters like the washing machine will do.
Now I'm not expecting the 840's e-mail to suggest you change to Hammermill bond paper "because it feels so much better on delicate rollers"--but someday it just might. All the Internet appliances are going to hound us to death with constant sales pitches. It's revolting.
Of course, while I whine about this, many applaud. More free stuff! And in most ways these services do seem cool and neat. The friendly washing machine and the friendly refrigerator tell you about discounts across town.
How could this turn against us? I'm not too worried about the government or the IRS. But what about criminals hacking the Net, logging your washes to see if you're not home? Or insurance companies monitoring your food purchases over the Net and rating what's in your refrigerator to see if you're a high risk?
Insurance companies have become experts at data mining, and they're accumulating massive amounts of personal information. There's a rumor that they're the real force behind grocery-store cards to determine personal habits. While this may scare us into healthy lifestyles, I don't like it.
Underneath all the IP appliances, an unsavory insurance plot is lurking. You'll see!
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