Plugging Cable Into Web-Ready Toasters


From one viewpoint, Sunbeam's networked coffeemaker and the
Samsung Internet-ready microwave oven -- both on display at last month's International
Housewares Show in Chicago -- trumped the Whirlpool refrigerator with built-in Web browser
and the Java-enabled home gateway that were showcased two weeks earlier at the Consumer
Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

After all, the smaller and more accessible the device, the
more likely it is to find its way into American homes.

Of course, all of this assumes that the Jetsons
dream -- which we've seen for decades -- is finally ready for normal households, because
now, we've got the Net.

Thanks to the Internet, the timetable for these gizmos is
closing in. There's a staggering avalanche of appliances ready to connect to home
networks. And not just Net appliances: everyday devices for the rest of us.

The long-promised Home Area Network begins to look more
real, fueled by the expectation that it will start serving the multi-PC household, then
infiltrate through other networked devices.

Home networks make it possible to connect multiple devices
to cable modems and digital subscriber lines, as well as to hook devices together within
the home.

At the recent Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers
2000 Conference on Emerging Technologies, there was a call for cable to prepare for this
HAN opportunity. At the electronics and housewares events, it was clear that those
industries are moving ahead with home networks, whether or not cable is ready.

Of course, home-networking advocates have plenty of their
own problems to resolve, starting with standards.

At the most fundamental level, the groups promoting wired
and wireless interconnectivity are facing off. The HomeRF Working Group touts the value of
wireless networks, while the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) is pushing ahead
with its technology, piggybacked on existing home phone circuits.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Home Audio Video
interoperability standard (HAVi) are gloating about their specification, which will ride
on the IEEE 1394 interface -- good for set-top boxes, not necessarily ideal for toasters.

Setting aside these territorial battles, one message
emerged from the trade-show demonstrations: Cable infrastructure is being acknowledged,
but not championed, by this latest wave of smart-appliance pioneers.

At last month's CES -- the most eye-popping installment of
that annual extravaganza in more than a decade -- Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems
accelerated their visions of the networked home, moving well beyond the concepts they
proposed last year and into working prototypes from dozens of brand-name appliance makers.

Separately, Microsoft -- which built a prototype networked
house to show off its Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) standard -- still proclaims mighty
aspirations in this sector, only some of which depend on its stake in cable set-top boxes.

Start-up companies such as 2Wire Inc. showcased their
broadband residential gateways. Although 2Wire paid lip service to its compatibility with
cable, the company's "HomePortal" system was built around the DSL technology of
the phone companies.

And 3Com ecumenically put its cable and DSL modems
side-by-side, but it concentrated much of its overall message on the phone-based

Most ominously, a few aisles away at the CES, the ADSL
Forum's lavish pavilion told the story of DSL's growing role in the
personal-communications and home-networking businesses. DSL carriers and equipment
suppliers evangelized and demonstrated how their services linked to the home-networking
capabilities seen elsewhere in the hall.

As the gravitational pull of the ADSL Forum showplace drew
me closer, my mind drifted momentarily to the whispers of its stillborn counterpart, the
Cable Broadband Forum (or was it the Broadband Cable Forum?).

Who's telling cable's story to technology manufacturers and
opinion makers who are evaluating the next steps for home networks? Well, I did see one
guy from CableLabs in the vicinity, but he seemed to be scouting out the "AOL
TV" demo.

It's easy to pooh-pooh these smart appliances and home
networks as future artifacts of an unwanted technology assault. But in the Internet era,
these devices almost make sense.

For example, the Whirlpool refrigerator -- connected to a
Cisco home network -- features a removable wireless Web-browser device. It helps the
refrigerator "know" what's inside. Each time you finish a carton of juice or
deplete the frozen dinners, it builds a shopping list for your next order to the e-grocer.

An automated survey of what's left on the shelves can tap
the Web to suggest recipes you can concoct from the last leftovers of peanut butter,
broccoli and beer.

On another front where cable once made big promises -- home
security -- Cisco, Sun and their new GTE pals showed Internet-enabled tools. By marrying
Web-cams to interactive networks, you can monitor the nanny or the children's playroom at
home from your office PC miles away, or see who's ringing the front doorbell.

Charitably, Cisco suggested that the visitor might be a
maintenance man or the cable guy. But it wasn't at all clear if the cable guy was stopping
by to upgrade the home network or to take out the cable equipment altogether because it
doesn't play any part in this interactive house.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen has actually experienced
the Panasonic electronic interactive toilet seat, but he has not gauged its
home-networking status.