Tom Swift and his electric house

The idea of a networked house is still a tantalising possibility. I'm not talking about these nonsensical homes with toasters that check with the fridge to see if you've bought waffles yet while your alarm clock asks your electric blanket to check your heart beat to make sure you're alive.

Did you ever read the Tom Swift books as a kid? Forget Tom Swift Senior, who had adventures like Tom Swift and his Automatic Butter Churn, the Tom Junior books were far more onto it. Tom Swift and his Jetmarine, Tom Swift and his Atomic Earth Blaster.

There was one about an electric house, although a swift Google search (arf arf) fails to turn it up so maybe I imagined the whole thing.

While an electric house probably isn't as exciting today as it was when the Swift books were being written, the idea of a networked house is still a tantalising possibility.

I'm not talking about these nonsensical homes with toasters that check with the fridge to see if you've bought waffles yet while your alarm clock asks your electric blanket to check your heart beat to make sure you're alive. No, not that kind of carry on. I mean a networked home that makes sense. A video player that talks to the TV is just the start of this but having spent the better part of a week trying to plug both my video and my new DVD player into the TV I can appreciate just how fundamentally tricky it all is.

Thanks to my brother for sorting out that pile of spaghetti at the back of the TV. No thanks to the local Dick Smith store that failed miserably to offer any solutions whatsoever other than "buy a new TV".

In my house I now have several sets of speakers, several CD players, two DVD players (one in a PC, one in the lounge), a borrowed laptop, a PC, a printer and a scanner, a 25in television set and a 19in monitor, three phones and a DSL router. If I had a games console or two and a digital camera or even a personal video recorder to add to my collection surely it would make a lot more sense to network the whole lot together?

This kind of network I can see rapidly becoming a reality. My next hard drive will probably be at least 100GB so why not record TV shows on it? If my PC has a DVD player why can't it play movies on the TV set instead of in the home office? If we're talking about networking goodies like this, why not have my TV set receiving signals from my DSL router so I can join in Telecom's movies-on-demand trial and if we've gone that far then my games console and PC had better be able to play online games at broadband rates as well, to really bring everything home.

The barrier to entry, as they say, is the hardware. Currently I have to buy separate devices and most of them aren't designed to talk to each other. My video is obsolete (it just doesn't know it yet) but its replacement will have to talk to my printer and DVD player and everything else if it wants to get along.

This is potentially a huge market and one that's going untapped by any major players at the moment. There may be early adopters having a play with this kind of functionality but it's hardly something you can buy off-the-shelf or do without calling your network expert brother in to sort out your RCA from your USB. According to research firm In-Stat/MDR, in the US the number of managed home networks will increase from just over 100,000 last year to over 6 million by the end of 2006. That's just the managed networks - those run by a service provider of some kind. The researchers say they make up only 10% of the whole home network market, which should give you some idea of what potential there is.

And this kind of network, the home area network (HAN), is just the first generation. If you have a digital camera, why not hook it up to the alarm system? If you have a cellphone, why not use it as garage door opener or TV remote? Then we'll see whether your fridge can get along with your electric blanket or not.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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