The totally wired home
Upstart Fugoo makes gear that turns toasters, alarm clocks, coffeemakers -- anything -- into 'Net appliances.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In George Jetson's cartoon home, every appliance -- coffeemaker, alarm clock, refrigerator -- is powered by a computer and networked together. Soon that "networked home" (once the stuff of animation and science fiction) could become a reality: This summer a group of personal computer veterans will start selling Fugoo, a brick-size box that will plug into specially outfitted home appliances and connect them to the Internet -- and one another -- via broadband wireless systems.
Fugoo (the name is a play on "fugu," a type of fish) isn't the first company with dreams of Net appliances. Korean electronics maker LG released an Internet-enabled line of appliances in 2000. Fugoo's approach is to turn any object into a computer.
Here's how it works: Each Fugoo box is loaded with a Via Technologies processor and the Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) operating system. It retails for $99. When a box is installed, appliances that have been outfitted especially for Fugoo are then able to talk to one another over a Wi-Fi network. The appliances can also retrieve information from the Internet, so your alarm clock could also tell you the weather, for example, or provide a traffic report. Once appliances are connected to the Internet, you can do all sorts of cool things: use a smartphone to remotely program the coffeemaker to have a fresh pot waiting for you when you get home from work, say.
Before that can happen, though, Fugoo will need to cajole appliance makers and software developers alike to produce products that work with the Fugoo box, in much the same way Intel had to persuade the computer industry to embed Wi-Fi chips in laptops.
The company hopes that in the future, device manufacturers will simply build Fugoo capability into their products the same way that, say, your car might have a docking station for your iPod. So far at least one tech giant is onboard: Microsoft says it is licensing its operating system to Fugoo for a song in an effort to get the product off the ground.
Eventually the company hopes outside developers will come up with new applications that will lead to new kinds of household gadgets, or at least encourage consumers to hook even the most mundane devices up to the Web.
Fugoo's technology could perhaps spawn a pillbox that tells you when to take your medication, or a special computer mouse that monitors your glucose levels.
Fugoo boasts an impressive management team: Co-founders John Hui, Chris Chung and Wayne Inouye started eMachines, the low-price PC maker that eventually sold to Gateway and netbook maker Acer. Put another way: these guys know how to build extremely affordable products.
Still, Los Angeles-based Fugoo may have a hard time persuading consumers to upgrade their household gadgets, especially in a recession. "These things could have potential in the future, but when you talk about replacing your coffeemaker and buying a new alarm clock, there's limited appeal," says Nathan Safran, who covers the digital home for Forrester. After all, even George Jetson had to keep his household on a budget.