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GainSpan wants your fridge to use Wi-Fi

GainSpan, maker of wireless chips and sensors for the new connected home, debuted a fresh line of hardware and software today: ultra low-power All-in-One GS1011M Wi-Fi modules that can easily be embedded into household appliances. The launch could very well propel the company to the top of the emerging smart grid and home automation industries.

Major appliance makers are rushing to release new, smart products — from dishwashers to refrigerators to clothing dryers — that can tap into home networks. There is more consumer interest in tracking energy consumption, conservation, slashing energy bills, and automating household processes than ever before, and these companies want a piece of the pie. Now GainSpan’s new products are making this easy for even inexperienced manufacturers.

Essentially, any appliance containing the GainSpan chip could be remotely operated by users from their internet browsers or mobile phones. The product comes with standard Wi-Fi security, so all homeowners would have to do for full control is enter a simple password.

This sounds all well and good, but market adoption won’t be a cakewalk for GainSpan. It’s facing some tough competition in the field, not just from another company, but from a whole different protocol: ZigBee, a standard that uses radio sensors embedded in appliances.

When it comes to the connected home, there are two opposing camps. Proponents of ZigBee believe smart meters should be the entry point into home area networks. There are a lot of powerful interests already on board with ZigBee, including major utilities, big meter makers like Itron and Landis+Gyr, and smart grid companies like Silver Spring Systems, Trilliant Networks and Comverge.

Champions of Wi-Fi admit that it hasn’t gained as much traction when it comes to smart grid applications, but it’s already so ubiquitous in homes and commercial spaces that it would be silly not to use it for appliance and home networking.

In the end, a blend of ZigBee and Wi-Fi will probably be achieved, as Greentech Media also points out. The two protocols even joined forces in March to promote the installation of both Wi-Fi and ZigBee radios in appliances — a move designed to force other, smaller protocols out of business. But for a while yet there will still be a battle for market share.

Based in Los Gatos, Calif., GainSpan has raised more than $33 million from Sigma partners, OVP Venture Partners, New Venture Partners, Intel Capital, CampVentures and In-Q-Tel.