Cisco Brings Networked Homes a Step Closer

Cisco Systems Inc. will release a new family of products this year aimed at helping consumers build high-speed networks in the home, an initiative supported by Sun Microsystems Inc., GTE Corp. and appliance maker Whirlpool Corp., Cisco said.

Cisco's products will be grouped under the name Internet Home Gateway. They will include hardware devices for networking computers and other appliances together in the home, as well as equipment for setting up a shared high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line) Internet connection.

The announcement was made today at the Consumer Electronics Show, which is taking place here this week.

The initiative is the latest step towards creating the much-talked-about home of the future, in which all manner of digital content, including information like news and sports, as well as movies and computer games, can be downloaded over the Internet and accessed from PCs and appliances around the home.

The vision, also being pursued by Microsoft Corp., 3Com Corp. and others, would also network together heating and security systems, as well as appliances like refrigerators. In theory, users will be able to access unlimited information and services, and control their homes from a single console or remotely over the Internet.

Whirlpool said it is developing networked refrigerators, ovens and other appliances that will work with Cisco's networking gear. A networked oven, for example, might be able to download recipes from the Web, and program the oven's temperature and cooking time according to the recipe's instructions. Prototypes of the oven and the refrigerator are on show here in a Connected Family exhibition set up by the companies.

Sun's involvement is to provide its Jini technology, a software layer that lets different devices connect to a network and "talk" to each other. GTE brings to the party its always-on DSL Internet service.

3Com has set up a similar exhibition home in Las Vegas where its own networking products are on show. Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates demonstrated similar capabilities using a variety of Microsoft software during his keynote address here yesterday.

While industry leaders steam full speed ahead, few appear to have stopped to ask whether consumers actually want to live in such networked homes, where visitors are greeted with security cameras at the front door and where networked alarm clocks wake workers to tell them they are late for a meeting.

In a rare moment, Eric Benhamou, 3Com's chairman and chief executive, touched on some of the potential pitfalls of such a world in a speech here this morning.

"All of these scenarios assume a harmonious deployment of networking technology ... and that takes more than a leap of faith," he said.

Human beings will need to adapt to a world in which they are inundated with information, Benhamou said. The divide between digital haves and have-nots may deepen, and the reliability and usability of technology will have to improve radically if consumers are to accept such a digital world, he said.

"We've got to make sure as we pull all of this together that we don't make it too complicated, and we must be careful to preserve privacy," Gates said in his speech Wednesday evening. The quest by companies to provide the software and equipment to build networked homes will result in fierce competition, but, in the end, users will benefit, according to Gates.

"I actually live in a home like that, and it's a lot of fun," he said.

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