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Google Android Baked Into Rice Cookers in Move Past Phone

By Cliff Edwards and Ian King
January 08, 2013 12:01 AM EST 22 Comments
The Google Inc. logo is reflected in water droplets in Washington.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The Google Inc. logo is reflected in water droplets in Washington.

Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software, the most widely used smartphone operating system, is making the leap to rice cookers and refrigerators as manufacturers vie to dominate the market for gadgets controlled via the Internet.

Android-based products ranging from Royal Philips Electronics NV’s PicoPix pocket projector and LG Electronics Inc. (066570)’ Smart Thinq refrigerators to Parrot SA (PARRO)’s Asteroid car stereo systems and Samsung Electronics Co. (005930)’s Galaxy Camera will be on display this week at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Extending its free operating system to new devices could let Google collect more data to build its lucrative search business and one-up software rivals Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Apple Inc. Android also is an easy to-use-platform that helps appliance makers like Samsung and Philips add product features and benefit from demand for Internet-connected devices -- a market IDC predicts will reach more than $2 trillion in 2015.

“Android is sitting pretty in this space to take more share from the incumbents,” said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. “The fundamental advantage with Android is that the vendor can take a bigger chunk of the software and own it.”

Since the first Android-based phones went on sale in 2008, devices based on the mobile operating system have surged in popularity. Smartphones running the software held 72 percent of the market in the third quarter, while Apple had 14 percent, according to Gartner Inc.

Intelligent Systems

Building Android directly into devices can make it easier for electronic equipment and appliances to exchange information with less human intervention. A television, for example, might show a pop-up message from a clothes dryer in the basement, indicating that the homeowner’s jeans are not yet dry. The user could press a button on the TV remote to automatically add 15 minutes to the dryer cycle. A connected rice cooker could determine what type of rice is being used and set cooking instructions accordingly.

Making more intelligent, connected appliances and electronics has been a goal of manufacturers for years. And recent efforts to broaden Android beyond phones and computers haven’t all panned out. Google tried to push into the living room via its Google TV product. The set-top boxes and software for televisions made by Sony Corp. and Logitech International SA didn’t meet sales goals after their introduction in 2010. LG, Hisense Electric Co. and Vizio Inc. plan to demonstrate models that boast an updated version of Android for TVs in Las Vegas.

Fragmented Market

This time will be different, manufacturers say. Companies are competing to develop operating systems that can span a variety of devices and attract a loyal base of developers and consumers.

The market for so-called intelligent systems, or devices capable of receiving and transmitting over the Internet, will double to almost 4 billion units in 2015 from more than 1.8 billion units and more than $1 trillion in revenue in 2011, according to IDC. The market now is fragmented among more than 30 software makers, including QNX Software Systems Ltd. and companies’ home-grown development efforts.

“The Android circle is getting bigger,” Android founder Andy Rubin said in May at a press conference. “Everything should be Androidified -- is that the word?”

Smartphone-Controlled

Android’s proliferation offers broader access to hundreds of downloadable applications developed specifically for Web- connected gear, letting electronics makers create a family of products that can exchange information, said Frederic Albinet, marketing manager at Parrot, which began selling its $600 Asteroid Smart car system in October.

“There are many apps in the Android Marketplace we get access to, and our Asteroid developers have an operating system that everyone’s becoming familiar with,” he said.

Last year in Japan, Panasonic Corp. began selling a range of home appliances, from microwaves to air conditioners, that can be controlled by smartphones while providing information to users. Its $600 Android-controlled SR-SX2 rice cooker lets users search for recipes on their Android phones and then transmit them to the cooker. It also provides information such as how much electricity it has used.

The company’s NR series refrigerator counts the number of times that the door has been open and closed in order to make it run more efficiently, and it displays instructions on how to fix problems when they occur.

Samsung and LG, two of the earliest adopters of Android in smartphones, have begun integrating the software into cameras and appliances to stimulate sales in markets that haven’t been growing rapidly.

Support Needed

While Android’s free software allows for easy adoption, device makers may have to do more work than they would with software bought from a company like Microsoft, which supports development, testing and troubleshooting of such systems as Ford Motor Corp.’s Sync information and entertainment-system software, said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group.

“The open part isn’t as important as the reliability,” Howe said. “It requires support and courting of customers. If Google has no interest, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

While Google only counts devices delivered by its network of 58 manufacturing partners, the company said in an e-mailed statement that the free Android operating system is available to any developers that wish to use it. Google declined to comment further on Android’s expansion into electronics.

Intel’s Customers

Intel Corp. (INTC), the world’s largest computer-chip maker, said it has no shortage of interest in Android-based systems. Intel’s Wind River Systems software division is receiving an increasing number of customer requests, said Jim Douglas, vice president of products and global marketing.

Electronics and appliance makers are taking advantage of falling prices for LCD screens and wireless technologies to consider connecting all manner of devices. Powerful processors that are becoming more affordable also are adding to the trend, Douglas said. He said the operating system could also be used in big-ticket industrial machines, though he declined to identify specific customers.

“You can now start to put pretty robust operating environments and applications on just about everything,” he said. “Google’s done a nice job of building an open platform that it’s easy to develop on top of it. People are becoming familiar with it.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Cliff Edwards in San Francisco at cedwards28@bloomberg.net; Ian King in San Francisco at ianking@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net; Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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