Amazon’s Internet of Shopping will stock your fridge

Future of computing looks like this when about consumption and little else

The image of the self-replenishing fridge has come a step closer courtesy of Amazon’s new “shopping solution”. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The image of the self-replenishing fridge has come a step closer courtesy of Amazon’s new “shopping solution”. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

In all the years of chatter about the Internet of Things, one of the most-cited use cases has been the connected fridge that monitors your food levels and automatically orders replenishments when supplies run low. Hurrah, we all think, no last-minute asparagus shortages (you keep asparagus in the fridge, right?).

We have yet to reach the Internet of Things tipping point, but that image of the self-replenishing fridge came a step closer courtesy of, who else, Amazon, which has just gone and built just such a “shopping solution”, but without going to the trouble of building a fridge.

On March 31st, they announced the Amazon Dash Button, a cute little wifi-connected gizmo that “comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it”, according to the promotional blurb. “Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favourite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favourites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.”

Of course, for Amazon, encouraging people to “skip the last-minute trip to the store” represents the future of their business, not unlike the way they so adroitly encouraged people to skip that leisurely trip browsing in book shops back when it was quaintly just an online bookseller. The Dash Button, it’s clear, is “1-Click ordering” made flesh, the physical manifestation of Jeff Bezos’s most ingenious, and lucrative, idea.

But the fact that so many people thought the Dash Button was an early April Fools joke speaks volumes – principally because there was something comical about the promo video that accompanied the launch. We are treated to a quick-cut montage of repeated domestic consumption – moisturiser tubes, coffee capsules, laundry tabs – before the inevitable empty tray beneath the coffee machine prompts an exhausted sigh from the heroine, and the narrator offers an adage for our time: “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm.”

Truly, there is something Sisyphean about the entire scenario, but it’s as if Amazon is telling us that Sisyphus just needed Amazon to make his endless toil that bit more efficient. Ian Crouch at the New Yorker discerned a similarly sinister message: “That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.” Technology columnist Steve Wildstrom describes it as less the Internet of Things and more the Internet of Shopping.

The Dash Button is just the latest in a long line of gadgets from the eclectic Amazon production line, including the Echo, an always-listening, voice-controlled black cylinder whose purpose was never entirely clear, and the original Dash, a kind of magic wand with a bar-code scanner and voice-recognition features to order whatever product you need at any given moment.

I can’t have been the only person to think that the Echo, Dash and Dash Button don’t make a hell of a lot of sense in a world where everyone has a smartphone in their pocket – surely all these features should be incorporated into a dedicated app rather than dedicated devices? To even use the Dash Button requires confirming a notification on your smartphone, so what’s the real advantage in having little branded buttons dotted around your home?

Of course, Jeff Bezos also recognised the centrality of the smartphone to our connected future, and the result was the Amazon Fire Phone. Released last summer, the Fire Phone’s main attraction was a gimmicky 3D feature called Dynamic Perspective, and it was almost immediately seen as one of the most disastrous gadget launches ever, with Amazon quickly having to cut prices from $199 to 99c, and ultimately having to take a $170 million write-down on the unsold inventory.

It’s clear that apart from the Kindle e-reader, this is not a company with a wonderful track record in conceiving or delivering great devices. And yet, the Dash Button does represent something important as the Internet of Things creeps ever closer – it hints at the huge range of possibilities opened up by the plummeting cost of chips, sensors and components, a result of the huge scale of the smartphone industry.

As Timothy B Lee points out at Vox, “If current trends continue, internet-connected computers will only cost $1 or $2 by the 2030s. At that price, no application will be too frivolous. Expect the average family to have dozens, and probably hundreds, of simple connected devices. And in this sense, the Dash Button is the future of computing.”

To a large extent, computing has always been about automating tedious, repetitive and time-consuming tasks, but this is what the future of computing looks like when the world’s largest supermarket does the innovating – computing becomes about consumption and little else. As a vision for the future of computing, it’s not exactly inspiring, but it would be foolish to ignore what it presages.

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