In Depth: The Home of the Future, Part 2

By Liz Garone

(9/28/00)  When Yarachmiel Altman learned that there was a way he could easily network his family's five computers, he breathed a sigh of relief. His days of waiting in line to get online were over. "The timing was perfect," says the software designer and father of four. "It had gotten to the point where I said, 'I can't afford to lose my machine to the kids playing around,' so I decided to get them all machines. Once you get them machines, you want to network them."

Altman isn't the first person you would expect to have a computer network set up at home. An Orthodox Hasidic Jew, he doesn't own a television set, and the family radio is used only sparingly. Still, Altman jumped at the chance to be a beta tester for 3Com Corp.'s HomeConnect Home Network Ethernet USB system when it was offered to him.

Now, the Altman household is fully wired and connected, using 3Com's HomeConnect Home Network Ethernet USB system and a Webcam. The Webcam is set up in the baby's room so that his every move and cry can be monitored from anywhere in the house, most frequently by Yarachmiel's wife, Draizey, via a 15-inch monitor in the kitchen.

"The perfect world would be that Mommy would have no responsibilities other than the kids, but it doesn't work that way," Altman says. "This way is kind of nice. I can put up a little picture of the kid and have the microphone on and, if the kid starts to cry, hear him wherever he is. It's not ideal, but it's the best you can do."

Mixed reviews in New Jersey

Altman realizes that his house is far from the norm, and reactions from friends and family are mixed, he says, especially in the conservative New Jersey suburb where the family lives: "It's 50/50. There are some who really like it and ask, 'How do I get it?' There are some who think it's really neat and say, 'Let me play with it.' Then there are those who say, 'You guys are doing something off the wall.'"

Off the wall it may be, but in the long run, Altman and other home-networkers are saving money, even if they're not getting free products through beta-testing programs. Altman, for instance, doesn't have to buy each child a scanner and printer; they can share the two Altman already has. And they need only one Internet account.

Altman also saved money by doing his own home wiring, although it didn't come out exactly the way he would have liked. "I'm having someone come in to bury the wires correctly. I am really not a hardware guy, so my wires are not as nice as they could be," he says. Still, the actual setup of the individual computers was easy enough that his 13-year-old daughter set up her own, he says.

Networking for technophobes

All this talk of wiring scares off--and turns off--a lot of potential customers, says Joyce Putscher, director of consumer and converging markets for Cahner's In-Stat Group. "They don't want to be bothered," she says. For these people, IBM spin-off Home Director Inc. has an answer. Rather than selling directly to homeowners, the company works with builders and developers and has set up a network of consultants who install and upgrade the systems in people's homes.

Eric Larsen, a computer sales manager, lives on a horse farm in the countryside outside Raleigh, N.C. He had the Home Director Network Connection Center and Home Network Controller installed in his house while it was being built. In addition to networking the family's two home offices, the system has allowed him to set up monitoring devices in the stables as well as inside the house and near the swimming pool.

To his mother-in-law and friends, the system looks like nothing more than a revved-up remote control, Larsen says: "What's finally presented to the end user is nothing that's terribly intimidating. It's either a button on a wall with a label on it that tells you what it does, or it's a screen on your television and you use a remote control to control it--something that everybody's familiar with."

Just don't let any technophobes near the control center, Larsen says. "If you go down in the basement and look at the wiring closet and look at the computer and all the wiring and all the cables going back and forth, it looks like something from Star Trek."

Larsen wouldn't say what he paid for the system, except to say that it cost about half of what it would to put in a heating and air conditioning system in a new home. Home Director systems can range anywhere from $500 to $20,000 depending on complexity, according to Scott Yates, a representative for Home Director.

Setting up for wireless

For Thomas Blair, a retired software developer for mainframe computers living outside Portland, Ore., convenience more than anything else dictated his choice for a home network. Four months ago, he made the move from a phone-line system.

"Setting up the wireless system was particularly easy," Blair says. "You don't have to open up the computer, and there's no wiring. It couldn't be simpler." Blair says that it took him about five minutes to install the Intel AnyPoint Home Network wireless system. Now, he can walk around the house and set down his laptop, which has a two-inch antenna, just about anywhere. Plus, all his four kids, ranging in age from 12 to 18, can be online at the same time.

Wireless isn't nearly as slow as everyone thinks, Blair says, and it has none of the headaches he experienced with a phone connection: "You get mobility with wireless, and it's less temperamental [than a system connected via] the phone line. Just plug it in and don't give it a moment's thought."

Asked whether he might be a candidate for an Internet refrigerator, Blair says probably not. "I'm not a big fan of all that stuff right now," he says. "But you never know. If you had asked me two years ago if it would be important to have four computers all hooked to the Internet, I would have said, 'What for?' But, now, you just take it for granted." <<

To read Part 1 of this story, see "The Home of the Future May Be Just That," September 21, 2000, on

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