COMDEX: The era of the 'smart' home

At times this week at Comdex/Fall '98, the enthusiastic talk about how the great new digital world will change our homes, turning them into smart entities, with an infrastructure capable of helping keep us safe, well-fed and connected, led to a question: Is this a good thing? It all sounded like the makings of a plausible horror story, with the hyper-digital home sparking to life and making mischief for its occupants.

At times this week at Comdex/Fall '98, the enthusiastic talk about how the great new digital world will change our homes, turning them into smart entities, with an infrastructure capable of helping keep us safe, well-fed and connected, led to a question: Is this a good thing?

It all sounded like the makings of a plausible horror story, with the hyper-digital home sparking to life and making mischief for its occupants. The perky, over-the-top theatrical presentations didn't help. But this is Comdex so there has to be one huge thing that everybody is talking about so much that the topic takes on its own life, and this year that huge thing is home networking.

Droves of vendors small and large are betting that we'll like having homes filled with digital devices connected by various technologies. The distant vision is that homes will be constructed as networks, with connectors and receptors and transmitters built into the walls. We'll all be able to do whatever we want electronically, whenever we want.

In digital harmony, Dad and his buddies play computer games over the flat-panel TV using wireless keyboards in the family room, while Junior surfs the Web in his room and Mom transfers images of the happy brood into the PC in the study. In the background, the refrigerator tracks food inventories and allows Internet access to order replenishment online, while the security system monitors the in-house network, ever on guard for an "event" and appliances are bright enough to know when they need a repair person.

Strip away vendor-speak and the wild geek futurisms that make Comdex the show we all love to hate, and the basic premise of home networking is simple. Of the 15 million people in the US who have multiple computers in their homes, a good number would like to easily, inexpensively connect PCs to share the Web, printers and other peripherals.

A variety of seemingly easy-to-use connectors will start testing that theory in coming weeks, with some devices priced at US$200 or below. Analysts here this week said the price has to drop below the $100 to $150 range per connection for the notion to take on with the mainstream, but vendors are, predictably, more optimistic.

The evolution of USB (universal serial bus), which theoretically enables up to 127 peripherals to connect to a PC, and the emerging IEEE 1394, or FireWire, as a high-speed serial bus standard, are but two underpinnings of the nascent home-network market, and all the rage for the peripherals crowd this week. Growing consumer fondness for digital cameras, the expected buying surge when digital camcorders drop in price and expanded use of DVD (digital video disk) are creating demand for high-speed, in-home digital networks.

Lucent Technologies, 3Com, NEC, Compaq, Philips, Apple and Intel are among the vendors working on home networking products and shaping the infant market. Although the concept has been around for a couple of decades, home networking only now is becoming feasible for the masses, who can now take advantage of affordable wireless technology, serial bus advances and faster, cheaper processing capabilities allowing PCs to work like servers.

At least initially, there will be plenty of home networking options, although before investing too much in a particular product or technology, consumers should remember that, as always in emerging areas, standards and interoperability issues exist and there could be vendor cat fights before things sort out.

In some scenarios that emerged this week, the PC isn't the hub of the universe. Instead, digital cameras and printers behave companionably and independently of PCs, using small removable memory cards for image transfer. Or, TVs take over, allowing a mix of Web surfing and traditional TV viewing with one remote.

We must note that the actors, who presumably had been practicing, seemed to have trouble with the remotes, although the long fake nails might have been the problem in at least one demonstration. During two staged home networking demonstrations here, Internet connectivity was problematic -- whether it was because the prototype stumbled or the service provider's network was congested or the network hiccuped.

Prototypes are abundant here and some vendors had little more than spec sheets. The range of products and options seems enormous now, with the stream of devices on the market picking up throughout 1999, according to vendors and analysts.

Philips is worked up about AMBI, its home networking option due out Feb. 1. Using ShareWave Inc.'s digital wireless technology, for $500 to $700 AMBI will transmit signals from the PC through doors, ceilings and walls to a TV within 150 feet using an antenna, a PCI card and an infrared keyboard.

"If you have a 133MHz PC, that's more than sufficient," said Hans Van De Ven of Philips, regarding the processor needed to run AMBI.

Philips' partner, ShareWave, was everywhere there was home networking this week. Based in El Dorado Hills, California, the company was founded in September 1996 by former Intel executives and venture capitalists and is now headed by President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Schraith, who was vice president of Compaq's North America Division before joining ShareWave.

Other startups and spinoffs also touted wares. Novell Inc. progeny Intelogis Inc. is here singing the merits of powerline home networking, which uses existing AC lines to connect machines.

Those who will be first on their blocks to test the early spate of home-networking options are called "eager connectors" by Intel, which defines the category loosely as households with multiple PCs and multiple adults, who will spread the word to friends and family about their cool new home network and how nice it is to not have to constantly survey the household asking, "are you on online?" before logging on.

Eager-connector families are also likely to have at least one member -- perhaps an adolescent -- who knows something about computers and hooking up reasonably simple devices, and will help others get connected.

However, most of the attendees who were packing sessions and visiting booths were doing so for work and so the entertainment focus of the home networking displays was disappointing to some.

Timothy Matt was in Las Vegas specifically to see home networking products for Siebe Appliance Controls, a Richmond, Virginia-based company that makes controls for appliance manufacturers interested in using home networking to remotely diagnose ailments in washers, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers and the like.

"Getting the kitchen out of the '50s is a good idea,'' Matt said.

But the displays didn't pay attention to kitchens and Matt said he was put off by the emphasis on entertainment. The technology matters to him, of course, but not to typical consumers, who simply want faster and less expensive digital toys and necessities that will work easily together in the connected future.

(Rebecca Sykes from the IDG News Service Boston bureau and Elinor Mills from the San Francisco bureau contributed to this report.)

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