Group aims to make the 'Internet lifestyle' real

About a dozen large companies, including high-tech and retail firms, announced the formation Wednesday of the Internet Home Alliance. The group will try to raise awareness of home networking technologies among consumers and boost cooperation among vendors, in the hope of turning the much hyped networked home into a reality.

The founding members of the group, which include Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, CompUSA, Sears Roebuck and General Motors, have each donated $US2.5 million to the project. The money will be spent on marketing efforts to educate consumers about the "Internet lifestyle," and to fund working groups that will foster cooperation among equipment vendors, said Bill Kenney, president of the Internet Home Alliance, and vice president for strategy, home and online services at Sears Roebuck.

So what is the Internet lifestyle anyway? As the high-tech visionaries see it, every electrical appliance around the home can be networked together to bring increased comfort and convenience. Home energy systems could be linked to computers in automobiles, allowing people to adjust their heating or switch on the porch light while they drive home from work.

In the kitchen, networked refrigerators and ovens could be monitored remotely by manufacturers, who would send repairmen to replace worn out parts before you knew they needed fixing. And entertainment equipment such as TVs, stereos and new types of viewing screens could be networked around the house, allowing you to play songs or watch movies in any part of the home.

The vision isn't new, but despite the fact that more than 50 per cent of US homes have a PC, only a small fraction of them use home networks to link together smart devices around the home. The Home Internet Alliance, which was pulled together over the past nine months, aims to change that.

"There are a lot of very talented companies out there creating devices and technologies, all of which have the potential to make a real difference in people's lives," Kenney said. "But for the mass market to understand, they need to go somewhere to see it, to touch it."

That's why the alliance includes US high street retailers like CompUSA and Best Buy. The idea is that consumers will be able to walk into those and other stores and see demonstrations of home networking products in action.

The alliance has also formed four working groups, to improve the usability of home networking systems, identify sets of products that consumers can install, nurture new channels to reach unwired consumers, and market the effort to the public. The marketing efforts are expected to begin in earnest early next year, Kenney said.

Several industry groups already exist that focus on separate elements of the networked home. They include the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), which is defining standards for connecting devices using telephone lines, and the Home RF Working Committee, which is working on a wireless standard.

"We're not trying to replow the ground that those standards-setting bodies are on. Our intention is to collaborate with them," Kenney said.

As well as high tech and retail companies, the founders include General Motors, which is working hard to bring Internet capabilities to automobiles, and Invensys, one of the world's largest providers of automation and control equipment for the home.

Absent from the list is Microsoft. The software giant is a fierce rival of alliance member Sun, and the two companies have developed what some view as competing technology standards for home networking -- Sun's Jini technology, and Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play.

Microsoft was invited to join the alliance but has yet to accept the offer, Kenney said.

"We've had discussions with Microsoft about this alliance and also with other companies as well. We are an open alliance and we are looking to have everyone join," he said.

The other members of the Home Internet Alliance are 3Com, Honeywell, Motorola, The New Power Co. and Matsushita Electric Corp of America (manufacturer of the Panasonic brand). Contributors include Reliant Energy and Texas Instruments.

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