Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Net advances hard to keep up with

July 30, 2000


Traffic's backed up on the freeway, so you grab your cell phone and call home. First you talk to the air conditioning, telling it to turn on so the place will be cool by the time you arrive. You tell the oven to start preheating for the pizza. Better check with the refrigerator to make sure you've got a sausage and cheese. The fridge scans its contents' bar codes, then restocks itself by e-mailing a grocery list to Webvan.

The groceries get home before you do. No problem. TheWeb cam on the front door sees the delivery guy, alerting you to unlock the door.

I can program a VCR. But I haven't really learned to use my cell phone. And it took me weeks to learn to program the new sprinkler system. First, it was watering three times a day. I reprogrammed, and it refused to water at all.

Then, while you're staring at the tiny screen, you crash into the car in front of you.

Cisco unveiled its Internet house Wednesday. Every room in the house and every appliance, from dishwasher to DVD, is linked to the Internet, controlled by a Cisco "gateway." The refrigerator has a pocket on the door to hold a wireless Web tablet, a portable device somewhat larger than an Etch A Sketch that provides touch-screen Internet access.

"This is not the Jetsons," said Jared Headly, consumer solutions manager. "This is now."

The house of the future is very nearly the house of the present. Most of the 'Net home's gizmos are on the market now; the rest will be available in six to nine months.

Customizing a 'Net home costs an extra $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the level of luxe, Cisco says.

But you don't have to be super-rich to get super-fast Internet access in every room. Builders are 'Net-enabling homes in new developments for about $1 per square foot, about $2,000 for an average home.

Older homes' service won't be as fast, but it costs only $500 for a control panel that distributes access throughout the house through phone jacks or a wireless network. No need to rip out walls.

The Internet is "the new utility," Cisco argues, as essential to modern living as electricity, telephones, heating and running water.

For new construction, probably so. But I'm not rushing out to turn my 1946 home into a 'Net-enabled network of chatty appliances and streaming video.

I don't have DVD, so the prospect of having it on TVs in every room is not appealing. Come to think of it, I don't have TVs in every room.

I can program a VCR. But I haven't really learned to use my cell phone. And it took me weeks to learn to program the new sprinkler system. First, it was watering three times a day. I reprogrammed, and it refused to water at all.

If my house were Net-enabled, I could link the sprinkler to a moisture sensor in the lawn so it would get only as much water as it needed.

But I'd need a "home systems integrator" a whole new business niche to come to my house and hook up all the gizmos.

One Net-enabled possibility seems really useful: The ability to admit delivery people and repairmen to the house without actually being there.

Recently, Pac Bell's customer service system all electronic gave me an eight-hour window to wait for a repair human. My daughter was home from college and not yet working, so she hung around till the guy showed up. Most of us are employed. We can't do that.

Business travelers might use the video-conferencing features to have virtual quality time with the kids.

"Entertainment will be the killer app," Headley predicted. No need to trek to Blockbuster to rent "Casablanca" and then return it. The Net will bring it to you.

Other features are gimmicks. If the Net-enabled house can't collect the dirty laundry, sort it and put a load in the washer, I don't need to be able to turn the machine on from work. I don't need to scan cooking instructions into a "smart oven." I'm smart enough to do that myself. (Remember when we were all going to have a computer in the kitchen for recipes?)

Future ovens will include a "ham cam," as Headley calls it, that will let homeowners watch the meat a-cookin' from elsewhere. But why?

Some useful features give me the willies. Net-enabled appliances can e-mail their manufacturers when they need to be serviced, and perhaps be fixed online. Perhaps I'm being a human beingist, but this seems a bit uppish on the part of mere appliances.

Shopping for a new microwave oven recently, I saw a model with a message feature. "You could program it to remind you of appointments," the sales clerk said. "Dentist at 10, return video," etc.

I do not wish to be nagged by my own microwave. Assuming I could learn to program it.

The idea of putting Web cams in every room makes me even more nervous. I can see the utility of a Web cam on the front door. But who wants to turn their home into a "Big Brother" set?

My parents put in an intercom system when my baby brother was born so they could hear him from their new bedroom, one level up. The system included an intercom at the front door, to screen visitors, and one in the kitchen, to avoid shouting down the stairs.

Periodically, an intercom would be left on "speak," broadcasting teen chat to parental ears.

Net home dwellers will have choices, of course. You can let the dishwasher discuss its issues with Whirlpool without letting the fridge take over food ordering. Web-camming the bedrooms is an option, not a requirement.

Consider the Net-enabled toilet still in the Jetsons' stage which could transmit excretory data to a health monitoring service.

I predict it will not catch on.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the San Jose Mercury News editorial board.

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