You've Got Toast!

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

The problem with home networking is that it takes practical and perfectly functional machines and makes them more complex and expensive in order to create a new advertising route to consumers. Granted, your dishwasher may get repaired faster if the dishwasher realizes it's broken before you do, but it also will contain more new technology that could go on the blink. Plus you will regularly receive spam from Whirlpool urging you to upgrade to Dishwasher 4.0 lest you miss out on all the new amazing things your dishwasher can do.

Then there's the cultural implications of home networking. We love the Internet because it connects us to information and, to a degree, people. But networked homes will only get us closer to our things, our Best Buy purchases. It's yet another layer of our societal cocoon for us to snuggle into.

And here's yet another concern: If you can access your interconnected home system by a Palm Pilot, why can't anybody else? A hacker could watch you sleep on your security system cameras, read your daily planner, know the contents of your refrigerator -- the ultimate in electronic voyeurism or, if used by a more active criminal, the ultimate burglary tool.

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.

"Those are all excellent questions," says Microsoft representative James Yi, who worked on Microsoft's concept home in Redmond, Washington. "The only way to answer that is that future technology will eventually catch up. Not too long ago, we had problems getting microwaves and refrigerators to work correctly. And two and three years ago, people were hesitant to turn over their credit card to Internet vendors."

But not without cause. Recently a teenager in Russia stole the credit card information of customers from a popular online retailer. And hackers routinely deface government Web sites.

"I'm sure there will be ways of [hacking into a home system]," he says. "The technology will just have to work. It has to -- none of this will happen unless people can trust it.

"Realize that the most popular room in a house is the kitchen and the most popular appliance is the refrigerator -- it's where people leave messages for each other. We're not trying to replace the refrigerator, we just want to make it a little better, bring it into the future."

The first net appliances will be introduced in 2001. One Maryland home networking company, Home Automated Living, has a new system called the HAL 3000.

In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the environment-controlling computer HAL 9000 attempts to kill the men plotting against it. Psychotic HALs are unlikely. But the toasters of tomorrow might burn our breakfasts if we ignore their e-mails.

See this week's SCROLL Contact James Hibberd at his online address: james.hibberd@ep.newtimes.com

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