It seems that consumers have been hearing about the Smart Home for a millennium or so: You know, the refrigerator that knows when it's out of milk, the microwave oven that knows how to cook the potatoes, the dishwasher that can be turned on from the office.
But suddenly, in the last two weeks, these pie-in-the-sky appliances seem a little closer to earth after a spate of strategic alliances between appliance manufacturers and technology companies to harness the power of the Internet to deliver the high-tech goodies they've been promising for so long.
At the International Builders Show in Dallas a few days ago, General Electric Co. demonstrated a concept Internet-connected refrigerator, with its ability to read bar codes as you put the groceries away and reorder when the cupboard is bare. This was obviously more than an ice box. It was a "command center," wired with "home gateway" technology for a home where all appliances are on the Internet, sharing information that goes well beyond reminders to take out the trash.
Only yards away on the exhibition floor, competitor Whirlpool Corp. showed off its command-center fridge, complete with food-tracking capability and a wireless pad to let consumers download recipes from the Net.
Far from Dallas but not wanting to miss the moment, Sunbeam Corp. let word leak out early about its own interconnected appliances--the bedside alarm clock that turns off the electric blanket and turns on the coffeemaker; the bathroom scale that transmits your weight to the gym. Sunbeam's introduction had been planned for the International Housewares Show in Chicago over the weekend.
And only days before, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sears, Roebuck & Co., the nation's largest retailer and servicer of appliances, announced, in essence, that the same Sears truck that pulls up to unclog your garbage disposal is going to be able to install and repair appliances that are smarter than most of their owners.
"This is kind of like the Normandy invasion," said Bill Kenney, Sears vice president for strategy. "You will see products with service capability that will stretch your imagination in the years to come. This is a big deal."
"It's the right time," said Vince Vasquez, group business development manager for Sun Microsystems Inc., developer of Java and Jini technology, with whom Sears announced an alliance. "A lot of trends right now are merging to make it real."
Yet all the merging is making things a lot more complicated. Already, producers of competing versions of software to make all these gizmos talk to each other--akin to the early battles over Betamax and VHS in the home-video industry--are making their case with manufacturers.
At the builders' show on Thursday, GE and Maytag Corp., maker of Maytag, Hoover and Jenn-Air products, announced they will join Microsoft Corp. in developing standards for so-called smart appliances by joining the Universal Plug and Play Forum (UPnP), a cross-industry group of more than 65 companies, including Sony Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and Intel Corp. But GE also has a similar accord to use Sun's Java and Jini technology. In addition to its deals with Sears and GE, Sun has agreements with Whirlpool Corp., Bosch Siemens, Motorola Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. And Sears, of course, says none of its deals are exclusive.
For its part, Sunbeam's new Thalia Products (see www.thaliaproducts.com for a demo) talk to one another using a system called Home Linking Technology, or HLT), a closed system that does not involve the Internet. The HLT standard has been adopted by other brands, such as Mr. Coffee, Oster, Coleman, First Alert and Health-o-Meter.
So, will your "smart" toaster talk to your "smart" phone? If it does, will it have a constructive conversation, or will the two devices just argue about networking protocols all the time?
The people developing Sun's and Microsoft's home-network technologies can't say for sure.
Microsoft, for instance, says appliances using Universal Plug and Play can run on Internet protocols understandable by any possible device or program. "The UPnP thing is completely open," Craig Mundie, Microsoft's senior vice president for consumer strategy, said at the Las Vegas show.
Indeed, the company touts Universal Plug and Play's ability to allow many different devices and communications technologies (wireless radio-frequency communication, phone lines, infrared beaming and so on) to work together. "If consumers down the road were to demand more interoperability with other technology. . . we could . . . build something like that," said Shawn Sanford, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows.
Does that include support for Jini devices? "Not at this time."
The picture is much the same on Sun's side of the fence, where the company is bragging about how easily other sub-networks--for instance, the standard being pushed for home-theater systems--can be woven into a Jini-enabled house. But devices that work with Microsoft's standard may not feel at home with Jini.
"That's where we're not sure," said Sun's Vasquez, who runs the company's DotCom Home initiative. "We don't know enough."
The Thalia Products Web site contends that HLT is compatible with several standards, including the Universal Plug and Play.
Computer hobbyists fond of tinkering with their machines haven't minded this sort of confusion; it can be an entertaining challenge. But when a recalcitrant networked microwave oven stands in the way of dinner, consumers are likely to be less forgiving.
"That's the traditional paradox about standards--there are too many," observed 3Com chief executive Eric Benhamou in Las Vegas.
And that's exactly the beast GE is trying to tame with its alliances with both Microsoft and Sun. No matter how these appliances evolve, they will function as a network, said Lawrence Johnston, president and chief executive of GE Appliances. "GE wants to make sure we don't have a VHS versus Beta situation, and consumers have products that don't work together," he said.
None of these Web refrigerators, ovens or washing machines is on the market yet, but senior engineer John Bentley said Whirlpool hopes to have its first products available in 2001. GE's will likely take a bit longer as the company continues consumer research.
Sunbeam says its nine Thalia products--kitchen console, hand-held organizer, electric blanket, alarm clock, bathroom scale, coffeemaker, smoke detector, blood-pressure monitor and food mixer--will be in stores by year-end.
The time is right for Web appliances, says Whirlpool Vice President Philip Pejovich, because of the swift acceptance of the Internet among consumers and because of the soon-to-be-widespread availability of so-called "broadband" Net access, where home users will have swift connections that eliminate the delays and slow downloads of standard modem connections.
When that happens, he said, there will be demand from customers for a wider range of Internet content--part of the same logic behind AOL's intent to purchase Time Warner.
To explain to consumers the value-added properties of these new products and services, Sears plans to create room settings in many of the 860 full-line, mall-based Sears stores to demonstrate the products so consumers can relate them to their own homes.
Nobody will go on the record to say what these new bells and whistles will add to the price of, say, a $400 dishwasher. But Sears executives said they wouldn't be bringing the plan on board if their customers could not afford it.
Sun Microsystems has also signed with Telia, a European supplier of telecom-based information services, to jointly develop home-gateway software. Telia is already implementing field trials and over the next two years plans to connect more than 1 million residences in Sweden, home to perhaps the most wired consumers in the world.
Perhaps the kitchen-wired Swedes will soon be able to answer questions that Jon Katz, director of GE's Advanced Products Development Laboratories, was asking at the builders' show. "One of the things we're doing here is asking questions and asking what is the consumer value. We're hoping to figure out," he said, "what do you want out of this thing?"
Staff writer Rob Pegoraro contributed to this story.
CAPTION: GE's Jon Katz stands by booth featuring Web-controlled appliances at builders show in Dallas on Friday.