FROM THE ETHER: An app for the new household

Home Internetworking is an insurmountable opportunity. I've watched companies fail at it since 1980, when my own 3Com dabbled in home power-line modems. Thank goodness we later stumbled into office coaxial Ethernets.

But hope springs eternal. Here comes Ucentric, another startup that aims to put Internet boxes in many of America's 110 million home basements.

Ucentric is 1 year old and has 60 employees, gathered from companies including 3Com, Avid, Bell Labs, Data General, Motorola, Stratus, and Thinking Machines. They well know the history of home internetworking and remain undaunted.

Ucentric's demo room was a large cubicle that looked like the inside of a lot of homes. We watched television first. From a couch, we used a television remote to scroll through a program guide and choose a station. Ah, Ucentric is selling a digital set-top box, I thought.

Also using the remote, we browsed the Web, read e-mail, and instantly messaged. Ah, Ucentric is selling a WebTV, I thought.

While browsing, an alert suddenly overlaid the TV program - telephone call. We sent it to voice mail. Ah, Ucentric is selling a home PBX, I thought.

We then chose some music, an MP3 file downloaded onto the Ucentric basement server from you know where. Ah, Ucentric is selling a Tower Records killer, I thought.

The music started playing on the stereo system across the room, through the FM tuner. Ah, Ucentric is selling a wireless entertainment centre, I thought.

Well, Ucentric is all of these and more. It's an open platform for your internetworked HAN (home-area network). It's an Intel microprocessor running the Ucentric operating system and, if you insist, Windows over Linux.

Devices networked by Ucentric include telephones, televisions, stereo systems, palmtops, yesterday's personal computers, and tomorrow's network appliances.

When I pressed for Ucentric's business model, they were ready. It aims to be a software platform company for application developers in home internetworking, with servers made by appropriate big-time hardware partners.

The Ucentric software platform, now being patented, will serve four general purposes: Web access, unified messaging, home intranet, and something else major which they are not talking about just yet. When I pressed for specifics, I got appliance monitoring, medical monitoring, HVAC, security, gaming, and telecommuting.

Now, if Ucentric is to achieve escape velocity and avoid getting gobbled up like poor WebTV, telecommuting will be the key, which is where you come in.

Who, I asked, has (1) the motivation, (2) the know-how, and (3) the money to install, network, and support Internet boxes in home basements? I hope Sears & Roebuck is not Ucentric's final answer. The correct answer is more likely to be . . . you, dear reader.

Home internetworking, like personal computing, will not reach homes through traditional consumer channels. You corporate CTOs will drive the early proliferation of home internetworking, into the homes of your company's employees, to support their telecommuting. Which is why I bring up Ucentric here.

Maybe Ucentric will surmount the home internetworking opportunity. Or maybe, like so many others, they will be recycled. Join me in rooting for them at www.ucentric.com.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe welcomes comments on the Pay-AS-We-Go Internet at metcalfe@infoworld.com

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