You've Got Toast!

At a Las Vegas electronics show, "networked homes" have everybody talking, but not asking the right questions

Go to your toaster. Look at it. Pet it. Is it doing okay? Does it want an upgrade? Is it toasting perfectly, just the way you like it?

Does it love you?

If it seems unnatural to be so intimate with a household appliance, you might not be ready for the future. At least, the future as envisioned by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

The Sun Microsystems' ".com home," where even Mr. Coffee is online.
James Hibberd
The Sun Microsystems' ".com home," where even Mr. Coffee is online.
An actor in the Microsoft concept home demonstrates how a microwave can download cooling instructions.
James Hibberd
An actor in the Microsoft concept home demonstrates how a microwave can download cooling instructions.

At CES, about 120,000 retailers, vendors and journalists wandered the cavernous exposition halls of the convention center and surrounding hotels, where 1.1 million square feet of display space was occupied by thousands of electronics companies, from A&B Audio Video to the Zoran Corporation.

Many displays were massive installations resembling hipster apartments, complete with flat HDTVs, Scandinavian furniture and attractive young Americans wearing headset microphones and Old Navy fleece. It's like walking onto the set of Friends and finding Monica and Chandler earnestly pushing DVD players.

After several hours roaming the halls, the mind suffers a sort of meltdown: the gadgets (a Casio wristwatch that plays compressed MP3 discs!), the spokespeople (Panasonic's fleet of supermodels!), the gimmicks (America Online's idiotic bantering robot!), the increasingly heavy load of four-color brochures and row upon row of products. Out of the information overload, two definitive trends emerged.

The first is the continued progression of music and television to digital formats as they become permanently intertwined with the Internet. Music will be downloaded from the Web, then downloaded again into portable players, home systems and car stereos. Products such as WebTV will allow you to chat with other viewers watching the same program, play along with game shows and watch downloaded movies in digital format.

The second trend showcased at CES is the evolution of the networked home -- where your house becomes an Internet portal with embedded technology in every appliance, from light switches to dishwashers to coffee makers. Such "net appliances" use your existing AC electrical wiring as their information conduit, and are controlled by voice-activation or using a cell phone as a universal remote control.

If you're at work, for instance, you can monitor and control your home security cameras, preheat the oven or program your VCR (which, actually, will not be a video cassette recorder, but a hard drive that records programs in a digital format).

"The home itself will almost be like a computing system," said Microsoft CEO Bill Gates during his keynote speech.

The Microsoft concept home, a sprawling exhibit in the main exhibition hall, includes a living room, garage, bedroom, media room, home office and kitchen. Each is occupied by an actor performing Microsoft's vision of the daily routine of the future, a routine that consists solely of using Microsoft products.

In the kitchen, a balding, middle-aged man in a bathrobe prepares breakfast and makes some phone calls.

"I'm going to check my Hotmail account from my kitchen countertop, but I want to warn you, this might take a while," he says, setting up the most obvious of jokes, "because I'm verrry popular."

His account shows a single new message. It's from GE, and says it's been two months since he replaced his GE refrigerator's water filter.

The actor looks amazed: "Who do you know that gets e-mail from their kitchen appliances?"

Several hours later, the man is still in the kitchen, saying the same jokes, making the same calls, checking the same e-mail. Except it's not the same person -- it's a different balding, middle-aged actor in a bathrobe working the second shift. He's been replaced, along with the other members of the Microsoft "household" (a teenage girl in the bedroom, a businessman in the home office, etc.).

The effect is somewhat creepy, as if a whole family were interchangeable Microsoft pod people.

The Sun Microsystems' ".com home" is more soothing -- earth tones, plants, no actors and less pushy name-brand monopoly. The vision is fundamentally the same, however -- a kitchen bar-code scanner for adding items to your online grocery shopping list, a Mr. Coffee with remote access "water status alert" and "brewing control," a dishwasher that "can be updated with the newest power-saving features."

It's a supposed Internet utopia. Browse your home. Download the kitchen. Double-click on the blender. The home-control of a James Bond villain combined with the houseware futurama of the Jetsons.

In his keynote, Gates reminds the audience that his $50 million Lake Washington mansion near Seattle is a networked home. And one wonders: How often does Gates' mansion crash? We all know what happens when Windows 98 goes down. What happens when your whole home goes down?

Ask such questions to Microsoft and Sun representatives at CES, and they blink and look at you somewhat annoyed, as if such thoughts are not allowed.

"We've done focus groups, and people are looking for their lifestyles to be made simpler and to eliminate a lot of household chores," says Darlene M. Janis, a GTE spokesperson at the Sun Microsystems exhibit. "Now you won't have to worry about running to the grocery store."

True, but there will be new worries to replace the old ones.

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