In Depth: The Home of the Future May Be Just That

By Liz Garone

(9/21/00) It's the buzzword of every marketing manager from 3Com to Frigidaire, but the truth, according to some, is that home networking for the average consumer is still a number of years away.

"For some time to come, aggressive home automation is going to remain the province of CEO technology executives who are so wealthy they don't care what it costs, and nerdy dweebs who are not afraid of its complexities," says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley-based forecasting center.

Much of the delay of home networking for the masses comes from the lack of access to broadband for a lot of people, according to Todd Thibodeaux, vice president of market research at the Consumer Electronics Association. "The broadband deployment with cable and wireless has really only gotten going in the past 18 months," he says. "So, we have a long, long way to go before that's readily available to the masses." Thibodeaux predicts that it will be at least five years before widespread home networking is a reality.

These gloomy predictions aren't stopping Cisco Systems Inc. from moving full-speed ahead with its Internet Home, a 1,700-square-foot, Internet-connected demonstration home that was built inside an office building at company headquarters in San Jose. So far, more than 3,000 people have toured the demo home, which features a kitchen, office, family room, and child's bedroom, all connected to the Internet via a Cisco Internet Home Gateway, a box about the size of a VCR located inside an electrical panel in the garage.

Features of the home include a refrigerator, oven, and microwave that are linked to the Internet. The oven can be turned on from a Web browser just before leaving the office. In the child's bedroom, the computer is equipped with a Webcam, which would allow for voice-and-video calls to a parent on a business trip who might be checking in from a hotel room.

Just wait till next year

Smart home products similar to the demo will start to become available to consumers next year, according to Kristine Stewart, director of market development for Cisco's consumer division. Prices will start at $500 and go up from there, according to Cisco's Web site. A fully customized, high-speed Internet home setup with an automated control system would cost between $15,000 and $100,000.

"We really believe that next year [consumers] will be able to pick all those things out," Stewart says. "The Internet will be the next utility in the home. We move into a house, and we expect there to be electricity and water and gas and all of those things. We're going to expect access to the Internet throughout our home, too."

But most of the network features will be of little use to the consumer still tethered to a dial-up modem, says the Consumer Electronics Association's Thibodeaux. "Those products will not succeed with dial-up modems, because you need instant on-time and real-time access for things like that," he says. "We have quite a ways to go before we have cheap, reliable, high-speed access in enough households to create a critical mass for a lot of these connected products."

First things first

Whereas Cisco appears to be looking at the big picture of home networking with its Internet Home, Intel Corp. (at least initially) has been focusing on the much more immediate needs of most consumers: the home networking of multiple PCs. The number of U.S. homes with more than one PC is expected to top 31 million by 2003, according to a recent report by Cahners In-Stat Group.

Intel's AnyPoint Home Network offers both wireless and phone-line systems that allow a single Internet connection to be used simultaneously at multiple PCs. The AnyPoint system also allows for printer and file sharing as well as multiplayer gaming among networked home PCs. AnyPoint works with both dial-up and DSL and cable modems.

Intel has 40 to 45 percent of the market share for home networking, according to company spokesperson Tom Potts. Competitors include 3Com, which offers HomeConnect Home Network Solutions, which, like Intel's AnyPoint, lets all the PCs in the house share a single Internet connection.

Home networking will come in many different forms, says Saffo of the Institute for the Future: "It will be messy, it will be confusing, but it's coming. The Jetsons' future? I think not. Besides, who really wants this to happen fast? Think of a smart home where we're actually relying on machine intelligence. It is bad enough to have to rely on Windows to run our computers. I'm not ready to rely on Windows to keep my iced tea cold." <<

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