You've Got Mail ... From the Microwave

Published: November 16, 2003

A coffeepot that starts when your alarm clock goes off (after warning you the night before if you forget to fill it). A security camera that e-mails you at work if it detects motion and then lets you see through it and pan around a room remotely. A refrigerator that will scan its own contents to keep a running inventory. A combination oven/refrigerator that can be instructed from a cellphone to start dinner and have it ready when you get home. A microwave that scans the bar codes on frozen pizzas and programs itself with the manufacturer's suggested cooking time. A home theater that plays music and movies off the Net. Remote controls for lights, locks and the thermostat. Add to that your pick of remote-control consoles: laptop, cellphone, TV screen, the bedside clock, even the refrigerator door (too many options, if anything, rather than not enough).

This is what home networks, once the province of tech tinkerers or the wealthiest of homeowners who could afford custom installations, are rapidly coming to. Computer and telecommunications and consumer-electronics companies are all working to link your PC's and TV's and washing machine and lawn sprinkler and kitchen appliances into a team that does your bidding from anywhere inside the house, or outside it -- in fact, from anywhere in the world. CompUSA alone is setting up more than 10,000 networks a month, while companies as various as Dell, Whirlpool, Philips, Cisco and Salton are using both Internet and cellphone networks to enable all sorts of devices to talk to one another. And, if the lessons from e-commerce are properly absorbed, they may even manage to make it easy for those who've never programmed their VCR's to connect and control a houseful of electronic gadgets.

The networked house isn't a new idea. Homeowners have been wiring their lights, security and heating and cooling systems for years. The most impressive setups have Web-accessible menus to control lights, home theaters, windows, ventilation, security and outdoor irrigation systems. ''These are people with million-dollar homes,'' says Richard Brady, executive vice president of Vantage Controls, which makes home-automation gear. ''When they get home from a trip, they want to click on a button to say good night and know that their garage doors are down, the windows are alarmed, the house is at the right temperature and the sprinkler and security lights are on outside.''

But now, PC makers looking for growth have begun moving into the living room with entertainment-oriented equipment that connects the TV and the stereo to the computer and the Net. With a boost from Microsoft, they've come up with the PC version of home theater in a box: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004. Media Center PC's, available from over a dozen manufacturers, come with options such as a CD or DVD burner, a streaming Internet audio/video player, an FM radio and graphics hardware that will produce a high-definition TV signal from PC games, plus menus designed to be used on a TV screen with a remote control instead of a mouse. Or, if you don't want to buy a new computer for the living room, Linksys makes a set-top box that, by accessing PC's (and game consoles) elsewhere in the house, lets users play games on the big screen without disrupting someone else working on the computer.

The biggest revolution in home networks, though, is wireless Internet technology, the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard and its faster upgrades. ''Nothing of comparable impact has happened in recent memory,'' says Bill Joy, former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and a leading network technologist since the 70's. Wi-Fi ''allows you to put a cable modem or D.S.L. box where the network enters the house, and then everything else can run wirelessly off it. This will make a revolution, as phones, TV's and computers all connect in this way.'' A new cordless phone called the WiSIP already does just that, routing its calls as wireless Internet traffic rather than sending them through the phone company switch. That means free long distance to anywhere in the world.

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