Whirlpool’s Low-cost Washing Machines

WSJ has a story on how Whirlpool has created a cheaper washing machine specifically for India, China and Brazil:

Whirlpool invested $30 million over 18 months to develop the washing machine in Brazil. But the Ideale is a global project because it is also being manufactured in China and India. The washer was launched in October in Brazil and China (where its Chinese name means Super Hand-Washing Washer). It will debut in India early next year, followed by other developing countries. The target retail price: $150 to $200. That compares with the average washer price in the U.S. of $461, Whirlpool says.

The people’s washing-machine project shows how Whirlpool has decentralized its operations, shifting more design work to developing countries.

Despite declining appliance sales in Latin America’s largest market in recent years, there was apparent demand among Brazil’s 30 million low-income households, which account for about one-third of all national consumption. Independent surveys indicated that automatic washers are the second most-coveted item by low-income consumers, after cellphones. Whirlpool researchers delved into the washing habits and mind-set of poor Brazilian homemakers through focus-group discussions and visits to households. Whirlpool engineers “adopted” dozens of consumers to give them feedback during the development of Ideale.

Whirlpool was convinced that it had to start from scratch to make a product that was affordable and appealing to the average Brazilian worker, who earns about $220 a month. “It wasn’t a matter of stripping down an existing model,” says Marcelo Rodrigues, Whirlpool’s top washing-machine engineer in Latin America. “We had to innovate for the masses,” said Mr. Rodrigues, who is director of laundry technology at Multibrs SA Eletrodomsticos, the Brazilian unit of Whirlpool.

Am amazed that the IT industry still refuses to create solutions that are affordable for the world’s emerging markets.

Economist on Food

The Economist has a survey on Food, analysing the conflict between health and appetite: “While the world’s food is getting better, diet is getting worse. Consumers want their food tasty, cheap and convenient (and bad for them) but they want to be healthy too.”

WSJ on Tech in 2003

WSJ looks at the year that has been for technology – a good one from the stock market point of view, with the Nasdaq up more than 40%.

One of the articles looks at what it calls “networks of the future” – how social networking sites and mobile technologies are remaking our social circles.

“We’re just at the beginning of seeing this big change,” says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University, who says the shift is a result of society’s transformation from being industrial and agrarian to urban and information orientated. He says people have made the underlying switches to computers and networks, but society always lags behind technology. “Now, we’re finally seeing the invention of new tools and social structures for dealing with social life in this changed world,” Prof. Shirky says.

MIT’s Prof. Hampton just finished a prototype of social networking location-based service based on e911 — an emergency system mandated by the Federal Communications Commission that pinpoints emergency calls from cellphones geographically using satellites. Users of Prof. Hamptom’s software create a profile and list of buddies. Then, they can tell when a buddy — or a buddy’s buddy — is near them.

“The idea is to increase urban serendipity, reinforce contact amongst existing social ties, and expand the diversity of people’s social ties by introducing them to new social contacts,” says Prof. Hampton, who says he is searching for a cellphone operator to work with on the project.

A group at Intel, meanwhile, is working on building a device that lets people visualize the relationships they have to strangers they see around them everyday, called “familiar strangers.” The device lights up when such strangers who also have devices are around and researchers predict this will help people more easily formulate ideas about the places around them (is this a good bar or restaurant?) as well as perhaps more easily connect with those familiar faces. For example, the device of a person on a trip would light up when someone familiar is nearby, and that in turn might encourage conversation.

Online Gaming

As networks transition from dial-up based and low-speeds to always-on and high-speed, online computer games are likely to proliferate. South Korea is on the forefront of this revolution. Writes and The Economist:

IN A country better known for its heavy industry and manufactured exports, some young South Koreans are working hard on software products and services with potentially world-beating characteristics. They beaver away on computers, but their desks are piled high with comic books, animated videos and plastic action figures. They are giving mythical characters new looks, creating surreal landscapes and building a fearsome arsenal of lethal weapons. Welcome to the world of MMORPG, or massively multi-player online role-playing games.

The companies that employ these game designers, most of them based in Seoul, account for only a tiny share of the world’s computer-games industry, which is worth some $32 billion once games and hardware are added together. But steadily their online fantasies are increasing in popularity, and in the process the firms are pioneering new ways to make money on the internet. What the South Koreans have begun to do is take online gaming beyond hard-core gamers and to a far wider audience. They are also trying to export their games to other countries.

South Korea got a flying start because of its rapid roll-out of high-speed broadband, which began in the late 1990s. By last year, reckons Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, more than two-thirds of the nation’s households had subscribed to broadband services, compared with an estimated 15% in America and 8% in western Europe.

So what makes South Korea different? Its game developers learned quickly that many players want more than loud noises, fast action or clever computer characters. More importantly, they are also eager to meet each other. This is why the country’s most popular online games involve role-playing sagas, which thousands of PC users can be logged into at any one time. Online, their virtual personas interact in complex and, of course, occasionally violent ways.

This gives South Korea a chance, perhaps a slim one, to thrive in offshore markets. But as they run into Sony with PlayStation2 and Microsoft with its Xbox, will the South Koreans be treated as allies or as invaders?