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Berg Wants To Be The Platform To Make Any Dumb Appliance Smart

One of the greatest design consultancies in the world has given it all up to build just one product. But to demonstrate that one product, well, Berg had to hack a washing machine first.

What does the Internet of Things look like? That’s the million-…err…billion-dollar question. To London design studio Berg, it looks a lot like this washing machine it’s dubbed Cloudwash.

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Cloudwash connects to the cloud via Wi-Fi to do things like send your iPhone a push notification when a load is finished. But it doesn’t require touch screens to tap into the magic. Analog buttons on Cloudwash’s face also allow for one-touch ordering of more detergent through Amazon, too, demonstrating how smart the simplest controls can become once they’re wired to the web.

It’s an impressive piece. But in reality, Cloudwash is not for sale. It’s just a Zanussi washing machine that Berg hacked without the company’s blessing, adding just a bit of inexpensive hardware to connect it online.

“They weren’t pissed off, which was nice,” laughs Berg CEO Matt Webb. “They were a combination of impressed and completely bemused.”

Why would Berg expend the energy? Because of that billion-dollar question: What does the Internet of Things look like? Nobody is all that certain yet, but Berg has to show the world some vision of the Internet of Things so that they can sell their new, only product: Their connective cloud service that basically is the Internet part of the Internet of Things, a digital ether that can make any Wi-Fi connected appliance smart.

For years, London design consultancy Berg inspired products of Silicon Valley’s giants. A company like Google or Intel would hire the studio to build some neat prototypes–things like desk lamps that transformed a work surface into a giant touch screen. And while those products wouldn’t even necessarily make it to market, they could serve as a beacon to a Google engineer, encouraging them to pursue and refine vital components of the future.


Six months ago, Berg gave that life up. Inspired by its own Little Printer, a charming Wi-Fi-connected printer that fed you your day’s news and schedule on receipt paper, it became a one-product studio instead. But paradoxically, the team wouldn’t focus on selling the Little Printer. They wanted to sell the service behind the Little Printer, the Berg Cloud, or what has since been renamed simply Berg. That’s right, Berg the design consultancy is now Berg the subscription cloud service, a turnkey solution for any manufacturer, small or large, to transform a dumb product into a smart product.

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Webb admits that in embracing the cloud as the company’s only product, Berg is picking a fight with some huge power players. It’s not hard to imagine Amazon (through Kindle’s Whispernet), Google (through an Android OS for home), Apple (through AppleTV), or Microsoft (through Xbox One/Home 2.0) taking over this role, and that’s not even to mention the smaller companies, like SmartThings, fighting for the same turf.


But what’s driving Webb forward is a simple truth that grounds him: Even if companies like GE are already building Internet of Things platforms in-house, countless analog product manufacturers were at a disadvantage of retooling for the digital age.

“I could totally imagine Instagram making a digital photo frame, but I couldn’t imagine a digital photo frame manufacturer making Instagram,” Webb surmises, and you don’t need to completely deconstruct his logic to realize intrinsically that Webb is right. Tim Cook isn’t knocking on the door of the Solo cup factory asking them what an iPhone breathalyzer should look like.

But just how Berg reaches all of these makers and manufacturers with a “we can do this!” message is a nut that they don’t claim to have cracked yet. The moment Webb pulls out the Little Printer at a meeting, people just want to make kissy faces at the cute industrial design, disregarding the cloud smarts that make it all possible.

Cloudwash was intended to be less distracting than Little Printer. If you watch Berg’s entire video above, you’ll see how carefully the messaging is packaged to demonstrate the minimal hardware adjustments needed to transform a dumb washer into a smart one.

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But I can’t help but wonder, did Berg still do too good of a job refining the design? Because its washer makeover is basically the user experience equivalent of a Lebron James “how to slam dunk in three easy steps!” video. Sure, when Berg plugs into Berg’s platform, it looks great–because, after all, it’s Berg!

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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