Wanted: Smart Phone Seeks Dumb Devices for Friendship, More

As a matter of fact, I do have a Master's in refrigerator programming. Why do you ask?

As a matter of fact, I do have a Master's in refrigerator programming. Why do you ask?

You're surrounded by computers. Think about the myriad devices in your life that have their own processor, memory and I/O: electric toothbrush, electric razor, TV, remote, coffee maker, scale, watch, kitchen thermometer, car infotainment center, multimeter, light and sound meters, medical diagnostic devices, thermostats, microwaves and more.

You also have near you right now a shockingly small computer with a CPU exceeding that in your desktop computer of just a few years ago, storage measured in gigabytes, a gorgeous high-resolution display and the ability to connect to anything in the world...wirelessly.

So then why does everything from your coffee pot to your washing machine attempt to replicate the computing and display functions of a smartphone, a device whose capabilities will forever exceed what can be embedded in a television or blender? Doesn't it make more sense to offload to a smartphone or tablet all functions superfluous to the device's core purpose? With the growing prevalence of low-energy Bluetooth 4.0, inexpensive, low-power-consumption, wireless I/O is available.

For example, I have written before about the idea of personal weather stations. Kestrel wind meters are extremely capable, but they are also quite expensive, in part because they have their own processors, chips, memory and displays. It's not a difficult mental exercise to imagine a weather meter distilled to its essence: measuring weather. All else would be offloaded to a smartphone, resulting in a simpler, lighter, cheaper and ultimately more capable device.

Isn't this a more useful display than what could fit on the scale itself?

Isn't this a more useful display than what could fit on the scale itself?

Where this brain-offloading is starting to appear in bulk is in the kitchen. If you see The Orange Chef's Prep Pad sitting on a counter, you'd never know what it was. No display or buttons, too thick to be a cutting board. But it's a perfect example of smart offloading: A kitchen scale that connects to your smartphone or tablet via BT 4.0. Their Countertop App displays not only the weight, but also the nutritional breakdown. The scale does the thing a smartphone can't and leaves the rest to the phone or tablet.

In addition to eliminating superfluous cost and size, a key benefit of offloading the brains is the ability to easily add and upgrade features via an app. Imagine an Orange Chef recipe book that instead of a book or app listing ingredients, the app shows you what to add and when to stop, weighing your additions real-time via the Prep Pad. Or a weather meter's app that aggregates your personal readings with all other users, yielding a comprehensive, hyper-detailed forecast. Or your coffee pot could brew the perfect cup after you enter the specific type of coffee and grind in its phone app.

That's great for the consumer, but what about the companies building these devices? Wouldn't the SKU reduction from Smart Offloading hamstring their revenues?

Is that a ti400? ti300? Maybe a ti200? That's the problem.

Is that a ti400? ti300? Maybe a ti200? That's the problem.

Well, which is more efficient and profitable? Designing a new thermal camera every time the product team identifies a new market, tooling it up, contracting manufacturing, submitting to and waiting for UL, and then struggling to find a way to differentiate it from the rest of the lineup? Or identifying the minimally needed variations of form factor, ruggedness and thermal sensitivity and designing only those hardware models, handling the myriad use cases through a connected app (and, by the way, using the phone or tablet's much-higher-resolution display)? The first case yields 14 consumer-grade models, while the second might be less than half that.

"But customer segmentation is part of our revenue model!" Wrong tactic. Your customers waste time discerning the difference between models and resent your charging extra for what appears to be the same hardware. That's what in-app purchases are for. In the device-only model, your customer must make ill-informed decisions on functionality. In the smart offloading model, your customer will pay to unlock features as their needs are realized. Happier customers and your margins will be higher across the board. (Think about the staff and expense to support high SKU counts, regulatory costs, redundant packaging and marketing, inventory carrying costs, write-offs, returns and support.)

It's a trap. You make coffee machines, customers want to customize their morning coffee experience, so you respond with what you know: coffee makers. You reflexively design a new, insanely programmable coffee maker, wasting size, weight and money with a standalone device that accommodates every use case your product marketing team can imagine over a long corporate retreat.

Escape the trap by recognizing you're not actually in the business of building coffee makers, but rather of giving your customers their perfect cup of coffee (however they define that). Then design the best way to do it.

Distill to its essence the purpose of your product. Design in the features and functionality that can't be replicated by a phone or tablet. All else gets eliminated or offloaded. Your current and future customers will thank you for smart offloading.